Eric Church had played WE Fest in Detroit Lakes, Minn. on three previous occasions, and the singer took time during Thursday (Aug. 4) night’s headlining set to recognize how far he’s come.

Three songs into a nearly two-hour-long set at Soo Pass Ranch, Church talked about playing a two o’clock slot at first. The next year he moved to five o’clock, then seven o’clock and now — finally — he’s arguably the festival’s biggest draw (Kid Rock and Tim McGraw’s sets the rest of the weekend will decide that). Fans in attendance knew the drill and didn’t need to be asked to lift a boot in the air during “These Boots” or throw a fist in the air during “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.”

Church does away with many of the typical concert constructs, even at a festival when he can’t bring is full touring rig (there was no sign of the blow-up devil on this night). You won’t find fans waving hands in the air, back and forth. There’s no synchronized clapping at the urging of his guitarist. Church never offers a cheesy fingertip wave to a cute kid up front. Chief’s set was bookend with atypical moments: “Knives of New Orleans” — a little known album cut from Mr. Misunderstood — opened the show. “Like Jesus Does” found just Church and Joanna Cotten onstage closing the show. This was his encore.

In between Church played hits and more familiar deep cuts from the Carolina, Chief, The Outsiders and Mr. Misunderstood albums. “Cold One” was the concert's real beginning, as it wasn’t until this moment that the majority of his fans joined in. The title track of his latest album and “Chattanooga Lucy” came back to back between “Give Me Back My Hometown” and “Lotta Boot Left to Fill.” At times Church’s show lacked momentum — and the sound could have been turned way up! — but here the energy at the festival hit a peak.

His Merle Haggard tribute was received enthusiastically, as was his recent No. 1 hit “Record Year” and standards like “Carolina,” “Smoke a Little Smoke” and “Jack Daniels.”

To close his set Church gave a version of “Springsteen” that stayed true to the album version (he doesn’t always) but then turned it into a mashup with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the U.S.A.” before finishing with his biggest career song. The crowd seemed to truly inspire him to return with Cotten for the encore (was it a rare, unscripted encore?) before the singer expressed gratitude and left having opened the festival up like only he can.

6 Bada-- Eric Church Moments