Earlier this week, vocal teacher Keith Ersing fielded a question via email from Eric Church's management: Would his students from West Seneca West High School care to join the country rocker onstage Thursday night at KeyBank Center?
In pure opportunity terms, that's a locked-in yes. But to be clear, performing in the realm of a musician like Church is daunting. He turns the word "bar" into a pliable concept. That was clear even before he set a single boot onstage. In Buffalo.
[Gallery: Eric Church in concert at KeyBank Center]
Consider the Los Angeles Times' headline for its review of Church's Holdin’ My Own Tour: “How Eric Church turned Staples Center into L.A.'s biggest bar.”
Or this one from Rolling Stone, after Church rolled through Brooklyn: “Eric Church sets the bar for country concerts.”
The Times was lauding Church’s ability to turn a cavernous arena into a charming dive bar. Rolling Stone was referencing Church’s three-plus-hour “marathon” set — a Springsteen-esque feat that’s become a hallmark of his tour.
To that point, Church and his six-piece band took the Buffalo stage at 8:30 p.m. and by deadline for this story, were deep into a three-part, three-dozen-song set that would stretch close to midnight.
"You know the deal by now," Church, who had no opener, told the near-capacity arena crowd. "It's just us, here all night."
Dressed in his trademark aviator sunglasses, blue jeans and black T-shirt (picture a thin-bearded, tattooed "Top Gun" Tom Cruise), Church channeled his decade-long discography. He took a hard charge through "That's Damn Rock & Roll" and punched his way through "Drink In My Hand." He softened up for "Carolina" and rolled out his current single, the politically interpretive "Kill a Word."
Church knitted local references throughout. Mostly he injected "Buffalo" into his lyrics, but he did go deeper. He talked about playing the former club Buckin Buffalo Saloon a decade back, when he was just emerging on the country scene.
"We have lot of history here," he told the crowd, then referenced the heavy downpour outside. "We can make it rain here when we come."
Yes, Church can. Ersing and his West Seneca West students know it. When the teacher told his select Vocal Jazz group earlier this week that Church's people wanted them to sing, some of the students didn't believe him.
"When I started giving them the details and what song we were going to sing" - "Mistress Named Music," the opening song - "the students quickly realized that this might actually come to fruition," he said.
— Tim O'Shei (@timoshei) April 21, 2017
At 3 p.m. Thursday, vans sent by the Church camp arrived at West high school to bring 22 of Ersing's students to KeyBank Center for an onstage rehearsal.
They met Church's young children - "the honorary choir directors on tour," Ersing said - briefly interacted with Church, who told them, "Have fun!" before he walked onstage.
"It hit me that it was real when we were walking up the stairs to the stage and I could see the entire audience," said sophomore Claudia Calieri who, like her classmates, wore a flowing choir gown for the performance.
Nate Roberts, a senior, had never been to a concert before.
"I think it's pretty exciting," he said, "that my first one happened to be one that I'm in!"
Exciting, and tough to duplicate. Call it one more way Church is elevating the bar even higher.