Gospel Set Vexes Some Fans


Stagecoach is known for its surprises and, on Friday night, Eric Church delivered one of the most unexpected in the California country music festival’s history. The question facing fans is, was it a good surprise or a bad one?

As the opening night headliner, Church’s set was highly anticipated. He hadn’t headlined Stagecoach since 2016 and is currently in the midst of a 19-show residency at his Nashville bar Chief’s that finds him getting up-close and candid with fans and testing out new songs. When he appeared on the Mane Stage at 9:45 p.m. to the sounds of a church organ and sat down on a chair with only his guitar, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a typical festival performance. Few things Church does can be described as such.

Opening with a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the songwriter spent the next hour and 15 minutes playing a breathless medley of gospel standards, hymns, and covers of Motown, classic rock, and gangsta rap backed by a 16-member choir. In between, he wove in snippets of his own songs, using “Mistress Named Music” — a song he’s often used to tee up a covers medley — as the through-line. He sang verses of “Smoke a Little Smoke,” “Desperate Man,” “The Outsiders,”  “Sinners Like Me,” and “Heart on Fire,” but steered clear of full, faithful versions of his own material, choosing instead to try and create a revival atmosphere for the expected 70,000 in attendance.

Fans near the front of the stage appeared befuddled and unsure how to react. Some danced and sang along, especially to versions of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” and Tupac Shakur’s “California Love,” but others waited impatiently for something of Church’s they recognized. A few booed, one yelled for him to sing his own songs, and many wandered off (perhaps to line up for Nickelback’s late-night set across the field on the Palomino stage).

But Church, unwavering, stayed his course, plucking away at his acoustic guitar, singing Kenny Loggins and Neil Diamond hits, and rocking back and forth in his chair. Finally, at the climax, his full band — plugged in and electric — dramatically rose up from behind the stage to power through “Country Music Jesus.” A choir rendition of his 2012 hit “Springsteen” followed as the sendoff.

Church’s Stagecoach performance, unconventional by festival standards, had shades of his 2023 CMA Fest appearance in Nashville. During that seven-song set, he challenged fans with jammy interpretations of singles like “Drink in My Hand” and deep cuts, and avoided hits like “Springsteen” and “Talladega” altogether. Church told Rolling Stone then that he was “shocked” by fans’ reaction. He may be feeling that way again today, judging by some of the social media criticism early Saturday morning.


But whether you loved Church’s Stagecoach set or hated it — overall, we thought it was a daring, inspired choice, expertly rendered — it does raise some questions to ponder. What obligation, if any, does an artist have to play the hits at a festival? Have fans become complacent in expecting a set list of faithfully reproduced songs? Or, maybe, have festivals become just too expensive for experimentation? Stagecoach GA passes ranged from $429 to $549.

Regardless of how fans at Stagecoach on Friday night might answer those questions, there is one certainty: Those who stayed saw something they’ll be talking about for a long time.

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