There was no one more aware of the symbolic importance of Eric Church’s first-ever headlining show at Madison Square Garden last friday evening than Church himself. “We played this stage eight years and three days ago,” he announced early on during his set, referring to his 2006 irreverent opening set for Rascal Flatts that got Church fired from the tour and in doing so, helped create the mythic image of Church as country music’s renegade outsider ever since. “I told you I’d be back.”

Church was overjoyed to be taking over the biggest venue in New York City, taking the stage a little after 9pm and running a good 20 minutes past the venue’s 11 o’clock union curfew (and most likely facing a hefty fine as a result). The North Carolina singer’s set heavily featured his latest, most ambitious record, The Outsiders, with a strong collection of hits from his previous three records.

Church’s set was an exercise in the mastery of his own myth. He has built a career off of his rough-nosed, hard-living image as rebel outlaw while delivering, again and again, first-rate tender pop-ballads to country radio. Indeed, romantic crooning may be what Church does best: hits like “Springsteen” (complete with a two-verse intro to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”), “Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Talladega,” and “Carolina” were all highlights of the evening and were evenly dispersed throughout the performance, serving as the anchors for the set. During the chorus of “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Church had a the near-twenty-thousand crowd at the Garden sing him back the chorus, a chorus of transplants mourning their small towns they’ve left behind. Later on in the set, “Sinners Like Me” provided the primary feel-good, iPhone-light waving moment of the night.

The first breakthrough moment of the night, though, was during the third song of the evening, “Guys Like Me.” The self-defining single from Church’s debut, Sinners Like Me, had the crowd hollering along as Church sang, fist pumping in the air: “‘Cause guys like me drink too many beers on Friday after work.” One gets the sense that Church feels pressure to ride out his every-man, beer-drinking persona as much as possible, but he’d rather sing about clinging memories and mythic taverns. The first of several “U.S.A.” chants came after almost certainly mishearing the chorus to “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” Church’s name-dropping, feel-good tribute to old time country music and Merle Haggard.

It must also be noted that Church’s ultra-minimalist, sleek stage setup was an impressive, ultra-modern arena-rock stage presentation that allowed Church to sing from a half-dozen mics lined along all sides of the stage. The band, playing entirely on wireless guitars and bass, followed Church along the stage’s two catwalks throughout the evening. The flashiest his show got was the drum riser emerging from the ceiling at the beginning of the show. Church is an adept arena performer, never staying still for more than a song at the time, singing to the crowd behind the stage several times, and in general laboring to engage all corners of the arena at every available moment.

But occasionally, Church’s self-defining gets ahead of himself. “That’s Damn Rock & Roll,” Church’s ironically overblown ode to simple, bare-bones rock and roll, came across as particularly egregious onstage Friday evening. It was the one time during the set I was worried there may be pyrotechnics. Instead of pyrotechnics, Church delivered an inflatable over-sized devil during “Devil, Devil” (naturally).

It was also disappointing to see Church pause in between songs to give a personal introduction to “Dark Side,” one of the weakest, and transparently image-promoting songs on his latest record. Church is far too clever a writer for his “primary revelation upon being a father,” that he explained on stage Friday evening, would be to “let the darkness out” if anyone ever hurt his family.

The first opener of the evening was critical darling Brandy Clark, whose brief set featured songs from her tremendous debut record 12 Stories, as well as a smattering of hits she’s written for artists like Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”) and The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”). Clark’s vocals shined during the vulnerable ballad “Hold My Hand,” and her band sounded great during the opener “Stripes.” It was reassuring to see Clark refuse to compromise any of her sensitive singer-songwriter tendencies for the large stage. Her set was entirely without gimmick or flash.

“I think there are a lot of those at an Eric Church show,” Clark announced before her weed-smoking anthem “Get High.” If no one else was going to point out that Clark–with her songs about downtrodden divorcees and pain-pill addicts–was a perfect fit as an opener for Eric Church, she may as well herself. The weed celebrating continued later on in the evening when Church sang “Smoke A Little Smoke.”

Dwight Yoakam, the second opener of the evening, took the stage with a sequin-wearing band and started right into “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke.” Yoakam’s nearly hour-long, 15-song set was very well received, with highlights including 1986’s “It Won’t Hurt,” “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Second Hand Heart,” a new heartland-rocker that Yoakam has recently wrote, and not yet released. Yoakam showed the debt his rockabilly, hiccuping country has to the hard sounds of California country when he performed a cover of Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield” early on in his swift set.

By the time Church took the stage to the title track of his most recent album, the crowd was eager to see the singer headline the Garden stage for the first time. After a two-hour+ main set, Church came out to sing one more song, along with an acoustic guitar. “I’ve dreamed many nights of doing this song in this room,” he said before launching into a the stark prison ballad “Lightning,” from Sinners Like Me. Church performed the heartfelt, redemptive tale, thanked the crowd once more, and smiled.

Eric Church 10/17/14 MSG Setlist

The Outsiders
Creepin’
Guys Like Me
Carolina
I’m Gettin’ Stoned
Talladega
Pledge Allegiance to the Hag
Drink in My Hand
The Hard Way
Jack Daniels
Cold One
That’s Damn Rock & Roll
Give Me Back My Hometown
Homeboy
Dark Side
Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)
Country Music Jesus
Smoke a Little Smoke
Sinners Like Me
Over When It’s Over
Like a Wrecking Ball
Roller Coaster Ride
Lotta Boot Left to Fill
These Boots
Born In The U.S.A (Bruce Springsteen cover)

Encore

Lightning