I found it bit jarring that Little Big Town opened the show with a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at Frank Erwin Center Friday night. It seemed so out of place that my mind kept looking for reasons why. Maybe it was in honor of Elon Musk’s successful Falcon Heavy rocket launch a few days before? Or maybe it was a shout-out to Kim Jong Un in honor of the start of the Winter Olympics and the coming together of North and South Korea? OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but that’s where my mind was going.
Once the bewilderment faded, and I allowed myself to just enjoy the song, I saw it for what it was. A beautiful song performed quite beautifully. The lush harmonies that Little Big Town is known for lifted the song to new heights while signaling that this quartet should not be pigeonholed as a country group. They wear their pop influences proudly, owing more to ABBA and Fleetwood Mac than they do to present day Nashville. Of course, they would open with an Elton John cover!
Whatever their reasoning, the song served as a launchpad for the evening’s festivities (see what I did there?). Performing for a bit over 90 minutes, the group played a career-spanning 25-song set with a quarter of the songs pulled from their latest “The Breaker” album.
Little Big Town has a plethora of crowd-pleasing hits, many tailor-made for singing along. The audience was happy to oblige and eager to do so, knowing each word to not only the older songs but newer ones as well.
As a whole, there is some amazing vocal and stage chemistry within the group. Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet often gathered center-stage, leaning into each other as their four distinct voices melted into one shimmering mix of golden harmony. The quintessential vocal group. And yet, individually, each has a distinct voice that resonates in its unique flavor. Throughout the show, each would take a turn as lead vocalist with neither a one weaker than the other in talent or execution.
In addition to the stellar harmonies, another thing that stood out was how varied the songs were. Not content to repeat a tried-and-true formula, each song had a different attitude and style. Many times this can result in a confusing and unfocused mess, but not here. The setlist moved freely from ballads like “When Someone Stops Loving You” and “Better Man” to upbeat and happy songs like “Happy People” and “Day Drinkin’.” Raucous rock guitar leads to sparse and plaintive piano chords. Country – to pop – to rock and back again.
There was no pyrotechnics. No dancers nor synchronized choreography. They used a state-of-the-art light show supported by rear-projected video on screens behind the stage. The lighting and visuals supported the songs without overpowering them, letting the audience focus on the music. Nothing else is needed.
Halfway through the set, during the conclusion of the uproariously energetic “Little White Church,” the band strolled through the crowd to the “B” stage, located at the back of the arena floor. Karen exclaimed “Austin! We’re coming out to be with you guys tonight! See, the cheap seats are no longer the cheap seats!” to wild applause from those in the back of the Erwin Center. As they started the opening guitar strums of “Bring it on Home,” one of the mics fell out of its holder, leading to the night’s only PG moment with talk of viagra and needing some “inspiration” to keep the mic solidly in place.
What followed was the band at its core. Just guitar, harmonies and beautiful songs. Kimberly excitedly thanked the Texas crowd, informing them that they were a part of “the biggest tour that they had ever embarked upon.” She went on to explain that this was just like when the four of them started out, it was in the living room with one guitar “cuz one guitar is all we could afford.” They played gorgeous, stripped down versions of “Sober” and “Your Side of the Bed”
But they weren’t finished. Karen again took the mic and explained “Just cuz its Austin, Texas and we can do whatever we want to do.. cuz I feel like you guys appreciate, that you’re into country music so much, and so, this isn’t in the setlist and I’m sorry like everybody in video and lighting and I’m sorry… this isn’t in the setlist .. we’re just gonna sing a couple of songs.” And with that came a stirring chorus of Don Williams’ “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” followed by “I Believe in You.” Williams passed away late last year. They closed the B-stage set with another tribute, this time to the late, great, Glen Campbell. Their stripped down piano version of “Wichita Lineman” was a magnificent homage, capped with a perfectly subdued guitar solo from tour musician Evan Weatherford back on the main stage.
Many highlights followed including the Grammy award-winning, Taylor Swift-penned, “Better Man;” the beautiful, atmospheric “Lost in California;” an exciting, wind-swept version of “Tornado” and an unbelievably moving “When Someone Stops Loving You,” showcasing the amazingly soulful voice of a Jimi Westbrook.
The last two numbers of the main set included a rousing sing-along version of “Day Drinkin'” – which brought the members of Midland back to the stage with a couple of cases of Coors Light that they generously handed out to the band and audience members alike – and closed with “Stay All Night” that had the audience on its feet.
A single spotlight hit the B-Stage as the band returned for their encore, illuminating a solo Karen Fairchild. The crowd let out an exuberant sigh as the organ chords made way for the picked guitar arpeggios that signaled the start of “Girl Crush,” one of the Litle Big Town’s greatest hits. The crowd sang along to each and every word, as the rest of the band lent their harmonies from the main stage. It was an uplifting moment, hearing the entire audience singing in unison, united by the power of song.
They closed with everyone back on the main stage with “Boondocks,” another obvious audience favorite. It was a fitting end to a night of good-time music. A night of stellar performances that had the audience “over the moon!”
Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.
LITTLE BIG TOWN PHOTO GALLERY
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Kacey Musgraves took the main stage dressed in a bright red kimono. Backed by a killer band of touring musicians, she treated the audience to a 45-minute set that was heavy on new material from her upcoming album, “Golden Hour.” The new songs seemed to go in a bit of a different direction than her previous albums, eschewing her down-home country for more pop-music sensibility. This is certainly expected, given the success many others have had taking this route. Having already toured with Katy Perry and soon to tour with Harry Styles, I’m sure she’ll do just fine.
Heavy on new material means exactly that – She played just two of her older songs. The Frank Erwin crowd welcomed it all but gave their greatest applause to her older material, singing along loudly – and a bit sloppily – to “Follow Your Arrow” near the beginning of the set and “Merry Go Round” near the end.
Overall, especially on the new songs, Kasey seemed a bit reserved and uneasy onstage. While she’s never been a bundle of energy, there were times when she seemed downright uncomfortable, especially when she took off the guitar and wandered the stage with just a microphone. I would suspect that as the tour progresses, the ease will come with these new tunes.
Throughout the show, she talked about living in Austin and even gave a shout-out to Taco Cabana. She explained a few of the new songs, citing “Space Cowboy” as “where she’s been” and “Butterflies” as “where she’s at now.”
It would be very unfair to critique these new songs from hearing them once a cavernous arena. The arrangements were heavier on the synth than typical Kacey songs, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many showed promise and will certainly become mainstays in Kacey’s catalog – “Space Cowboy” and “Velvet Elvis” are obvious highlights.
Like Little Big Town, Kacey walked through the audience to treat the rear of the arena to a B-stage performance. She talked of her roots in East Texas “from the Piney Woods.” Introducing her next song as being written about her hometown, “which is Golden or Mineola, if you don’t know Mineola then Lindale, if you haven’t heard of Lindale then Tyler, if you haven’t heard of Tyler then maybe you’ve heard of Dallas, and if you haven’t heard of Dallas then Fuck off!” The crowd went wild as Kacey launched into her second and last older song of the night, “Merry Go Round.” She is obviously more at ease with her older material as well.
Back on the main stage, Kasey did a nice cover of Brooks and Dunn’s “Neon Moon” before closing her set with a final new one, the disco-infused “High Horse.” All-in-all it was a solid performance that will only get better with time.
KACEY MUSGRAVES PHOTO GALLERY
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Midland got things started on the B-stage with a fun-spirited set. Being from the Austin area – Dripping Springs to be exact – this was a big-time homecoming. The welcome they received was certainly not normal for an opening band on a three-act bill, and you could tell they loved it. Austin sure knows how to welcome it’s own
And this trio of musicians had fun. Decked out in vintage Texas finery, they sprinted through a 7-song, half-hour set, that left the audience wanting more. They called out Barton Springs and Poodie’s Hilltop Lounge and sprinkled classic rock references into their songs, including a full chorus singalong of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” during “Gator Boys.”
But it was their closing number that got the crowd on its collective feet. From the opening note of “Drinkin’ Problem,” until its last boisterous note, the crowd was singing along, arm in arm. It was a great set whose only problem was that it was over too soon. Way to go boys.