Like Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, country superstar Eric Church does things his way.
Last year, he released two albums in one month — “Heart” and “Soul” — and sent his fan-club members a third effort, “&.”
This spring, he canceled a sold-out concert in San Antonio just so he could attend the North Carolina-Duke Final Four basketball game. (He’s from North Carolina.)
On Saturday, he invited Morgan Wallen, country music’s persona non grata in 2021, to join him at U.S. Bank Stadium, one of only two stadium gigs on Church’s 2022 itinerary.
Last year, Wallen was banned from radio, concerts and award shows after being caught on video uttering a racial slur. Nonetheless, he ended up with the biggest selling project of 2021, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” even out-selling Adele’s “30.”
After a lengthy ostracization, Wallen has returned to the road this year, mostly headlining weekend concerts. No gig was bigger, though, than joining Church’s stadium hoedown billed as “One Hell of a Night.”
“I’ve played 35 shows this year. I’m more nervous for this one than all of them combined,” said Wallen, 29, who is singlehandedly bringing the mullet back. He later explained that the first big concert he attended was by Church in 2014.
The sellout Minneapolis crowd of 51,117 shouted its encouragement to Wallen.
Was the crowd amped because everybody seems to love a bad boy? (The pariah had other blemishes including getting arrested for disorderly conduct outside of Kid Rock’s Nashville bar and getting bounced from “Saturday Night Live” for not following COVID protocols.) Or was it because country fans love his music?
Wallen’s tunes proudly double down on whiskey, twang and small towns, but you might have needed a couple three beers to appreciate his performance on Saturday.
A solid songwriter, he lacked big-venue presence and, more disconcerting, he was a pedestrian vocalist onstage, prone to pitch problems and outright shouting, confusing defiance and nasally braying with passion.
Musically, Wallen has one foot in bro-country, a few toes in modern country with electronica and hip-hop elements, and one in traditional country.
His most impressive efforts on Saturday were selections he didn’t write — an acoustic reading of Jason Isbell’s vulnerable love song “Cover Me Up” and Wallen’s own clever, heartaching 2018 hit “Whiskey Glasses,” a classic country tune filled with double shots and double meanings. One of the best country songs of this century, it was the crowd-thrilling finale in Wallen’s 85-minute set.
For Church, 45, who played two consecutive nights at Target Center in 2019, this is his first foray into stadiums. Nashville’s marathon man known for rare three-hour shows, he seamlessly transformed his brand of brio country into football-field fare. The guitars roared, the drums kicked and the vocals soared, both Church’s and backup singer Joanna Cotten’s.
The opening “Outsiders” rocked with a metallic edge, “Desperate Man” despaired with a Stonesian vibe and “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” galvanized like a bona fide country anthem, complete with a blast of trombone, saxophone and trumpet.
The crowd loved the revved up “Smoke a Little Smoke” with its swampy rhythms and the spooky electronica “Creepin’ ” with Church’s soulful singing. He juxtaposed the wistful ballad “These Boots” with the fiery “Stick That in Your Country Song,” finishing his 130-minute performance, which was triumphant in both spirit and substance, a few ticks before midnight.
Like his hero Bruce Springsteen, Church sang with such consistent conviction on rockers and ballads that it felt as if this could have been his last ever performance. But he said he’d like to come back to Minneapolis, maybe next Saturday night. That would be another maverick move by Church.