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Loud Cheers for Blood, Sweat and Beers: The Chief Rocks Ottawa – By Stephanie Brooks

What better way to warm up a frostbitten city in the dead of winter than with some steel guitars, bursts of flames, gunshots and 20,000 screaming fans?

The Eric Church Blood, Sweat and Beers tour, celebrating his most recent album, Chief, delivered all that and more to Ottawa’s country-rock fans at Scotiabank Place on Saturday, February 16.

Known for his bad-boy attitude and badass vibe, Church brought in a rowdy crowd of fans of all ages, but a more mature fan base (at least age-wise) than many other touring country shows these days.

In what appeared to be a sold-out stadium, the three-hour show started with former professional golfer from Athens, Georgia, Colt Ford. Ford set the stage for the concert with his patriotic lyrics and husky voice in his country-rap songs like Chicken and Biscuits and Dirt Road Anthem (which he wrote and was made famous by Jason Aldean). Other, lesser-known beats like Drivin’ Around Song brought the audience to its feet but weren’t as popular, partially as a result of minimal Canadian radio airplay. His proud anthems of guns, God and the USA got fans pumped up for the Chief himself.

The hardcore brand of North Carolina-native Eric Church was front-and-centre the minute he stepped on stage, sporting his signature aviators and ball cap combo and reviving the energy of the crowd. He opened with up-tempo tunes Country Music Jesus, followed by Hell on the Heart, Guys Like Me and Pledge Allegiance to the Hag

Large backdrops of skeletons, Jack Daniels, and smoke hung behind the stage and complemented his set list, including even a controversial cannabis-leaf Canadian flag one point. During Creepin’, rays of lime-green lights emanated from the stage mystified with the help of smoke machines. Then came his tune Keepin’ On, followed by Jack Daniels. For the latter, Church pointed to the cup he had with him on stage and said it was full of straight Jack Daniels single-barrel Tennessee whiskey, and “most of the time I’ve kicked JD’s ass, but sometimes, he’s kicked mine.”

He followed these hits up with Like Jesus Does, Sinners Like Me and Love Your Love the Most, in which the backdrop turned black, the band was gone, and all that was left was Church’s vocals, an acoustic guitar and real artistry. It was at this point – my favourite part of the performance – his true musicality shone through.

Twice during the show – once with Ford and once with Church – the singers had the crowd hold up their lighters or cell phones, had the house lights turned down, and brought attention to the resulting sea of bright white lights illuminating the black arena. It was a neat experience looking around and seeing so many people participate in unison.

After the sound of gunshots put a “bang” into Church’s song, Drink In My Hand, he performed the ninth single of his career, Homeboy. During the ballad These Boots, fans threw their boots onstage and after holding them up while performing, Church signed them.

The talented 35-year-old played an instrument in every song, whether it was the acoustic guitar, banjo, or piano, and continually lifted the energy of the crowd. No other time was this more evident than during his much-anticipated encore, in which he played the critically acclaimed song Springsteen. In the middle of it, Church played part of the music legend’s Born to Run and told an emotional tale about seeing his first concert – Bruce Springsteen – in his hometown in North Carolina at age 16 where he fell in love with the musician.

Wherever his inspiration came from – be it Springsteen or country influences like Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr. and Waylon Jennings – it was clear that music was Church’s calling. In this video from 2007, in which a not-yet-famous Church is sitting on the bed of his truck playing Guys Like Me, the publisher wrote, “this guy will be huge in five years.” Sure enough, here it is six years later and he has won ACMA, Academy of Country Music and American Country Awards as well as being a CMT Artist of The Year.

I guess you could say he definitely is a chief of country music.

To view more photos from the concert, click here.http://www.flickr.com//photos/steph_brooks/sets/72157632843489784/show/