It's been a long time since mainstream country music had a convincing and engaging outlaw.

That role has now been filled -- by Eric Church, who is clearly cut from the same cloth as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr. and other legendary "outlaw country" performers.

Church still has, as he would say, a "Lotta Boot Left to Fill." Yet, every indication points to him living up to his great potential.

The latest sign came Friday night when Church performed at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. The show was a ruckus good time, firmly underscoring all the reasons why the 35-year-old North Carolinian has steadily risen to become one of his genre's top artists.

For one thing, the guy's got guts. One surely needs them to open a show with a grandiose statement like "Country Music Jesus" — and get away with it. The tune came across like a proclamation, despite the fact the lyrics aren't self-referential, and fans were certainly ready to hear the gospel according to Church.

They came looking for salvation, from the bland music being made by all the cookie-cooker cowboys out there, and Church would indeed deliver a nearly two-hour reprieve.

Backed by a full band, and working a fairly bare-bones stage (which really could've benefitted from video screens), Church shuffled the songs from his three studio albums -- 2006's "Sinners Like Me," 2009's "Carolina" and last year's "Chief -- and dealt mostly aces.


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"I have extremely high expectations for the show," Church told the crowd early in the night. "I promise I will live up to my part."

And then some. He rocked and rolled through the big party numbers, like "How 'Bout You" and "Guys Like Me" (both from "Sinners"), and then turned deeply romantic for such sweet cuts as "Love Your Love the Most" and "Hell on the Heart" (both from "Carolina").

The concert drew some 6,500 fans, which was a surprisingly low total given that "Chief" is still one of country music's hottest records and recently won the CMA for album of the year. Yet, this is country music's offseason — the time when fans seemingly rest up from all the fun they had at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View over the summer. It's a pretty safe bet that this show would've drawn closer to the (roughly) 13,000 capacity if it had been held in July or August.

Church didn't seem to let the somewhat small crowd dampen his spirits. He just kept singing songs about such idols as Merle Haggard ("Pledge Allegiance to the Hag"), Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams ("Lotta Boot Left to Fill"), and Bruce ("Springsteen"). It's particularly nice to see him recognize the old time greats, since his young fans aren't likely to learn about the legends by listening to contemporary country radio.

The set list was quite strong, containing nine of Church's 10 top 20 country singles (the only one missing was his second single, "Two Pink Lines"). There was only one real stinker -- the sappy love song "Like Jesus Does." That cumbersome track might well be the single worst song I've heard all year -- and, yes, that counts the stuff Madonna played last month at the same venue.

Church's songbook, even after only three studio albums, is already deep enough that there's no reason why a bad tune should make a concert set list. As it stood, he left out some of his best "deep cuts" in San Jose — including the clever "Before She Does" and the anthemic "Ain't Killed Me Yet."

But he did play "Springsteen," his first multiweek No. 1 record, and for some fans that was all that really mattered. It is, indeed, a wonderful number — one of the finest to come along in country music in quite some time -- which underscores that Eric Church is well on his way to living up to his potential.

Follow Jim Harrington at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic, www.facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.