Today’s country may not be as big a tent as its more progressive or adventurous fans sometimes wish, but a smartly three-tiered bill at Target Center last night proved it’s not as homogenous as culturally reactionary whiners tiresomely insist.
With their glossy harmonies and twangin’ guitars, the all-dude country band Midland is a throwback not just to the more commercially calculating side of ’80s neotraditionalism but also to the AM radio country-rock wing of the Eagles' catalog. Critics’ crush Kacey Musgraves? She’s gracefully tiptoeing a tightrope between styles right now, crossing from spunky three-chords-and-the-truth country basics to a merger of countrypolitan and disco so luxuriant it verges on hallucinogenic. And the booming-yet-delicate four-part harmonies of Little Big Town (headlining their first arena show in the area) take on an undeniable force live that their recordings barely hint at.
Midland performed their short set mid-arena, on a gently rotating stage. How retro are these guys? That frontman Mark Wystrach tossed in a “that’s for all the pretty ladies out there” after one song should give you some idea. A tune of their own, “Gator Boys,” gave way to John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” and David Lee Murphy’s “Dust on the Bottle” before landing on an unfortunate coda of “Dixie.” (Some old times are best forgotten.) Midland closed with their hit “Drinkin’ Problem,” a durable example of how they ever-so-slightly tweak the familiar to deliver not-always-so-slight pleasures.
The Beatles' "Because" rang out just before Kacey Musgraves’ set began, its stoned-yet-immaculate harmonies a perfect overture for a set designed to introduce her new album, Golden Hour. Musgraves has always been 420-friendly, but where before she seemed like a joint-to-take-the-edge-off-after-a-lousy-day kinda gal, the new album is more like let’s-break-out-the-good-shit-and-celebrate. As Musgraves announced last night (to broad cheers and noticeable undercurrent of male boos) she’s “a married woman now,” and at times Golden Hour comes across as smoked-out honeymoon of cottony contentment, basking in the kind of high meant to heighten your senses rather than kill the pain. You know how some music just sounds better stoned? Well, Golden Hour is music that makes me feel the way I always wished weed would.
Musgraves wore a short black dress, more understated than her showbizzier outfits on previous tours, and fronted a band that prominently featured both banjo and cello. Older tunes like “Stupid” and the free-spirit anthem “Follow Your Arrow,” with its cutely whistled solo, mixed well with newer, more introspective songs like “Butterflies” and “Keep It to Yourself.” But the singer didn’t quite have the crazy in her last night to pull off “Mama’s Broken Heart,” the Miranda Lambert hit that Musgraves had a hand in writing, and overall her performance was charming but relatively sedate, as though she was worried about making nice with an audience weirded out by the interstellar banjo licks of a cut like “Space Cowboy.”
She got more intimate once she crossed to the B stage where Midland had performed, likening fans in that area to “the cool kids in the back of the class” and introducing the dead-end sigh of rural anomie “Merry Go ‘Round” by saying “I know what it’s like to grow up in a place where there’s really not shit to do.” And the country-disco blowout “High Horse” was a killer closer. But though it’s understandable that Musgraves has to put in the career-building work as arena-level warm-up act—she’ll be back here in July opening for Harry Styles, how’s that for covering your bases?—I’m looking forward to seeing her in front of her own crowd sometime soon.
Hearing Little Big Town’s harmonies live after only experiencing their recordings is like the difference between listening to a dance track on your earbuds and feeling the bass rattle your marrow in the club. The quartet knows how to make a first impression: Their opening number, which came courtesy of the great British country and western legend Elton John, flaunted their two most winning assets: gut-punch harmonies and a knack for reimagining other people’s songs.
“Rocket Man,” which LBT recorded for the terrific new all-country Elton tribute Restoration, began with Jimi Westbrook singing solo, nearly unaccompanied. The voices of Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, and Phillip Sweet joined in on “hi-i-igh” (you know the part) for the kind of visceral effect that usually requires expensive pyrotechnics. And the smartly spare, interlocking bass and drum pattern was no less imaginative or impressive.
The group is two men, two women, and, as is so often the case in country, the ladies are more interesting. The two women make a sharp visual and vocal contrast in concert: Fairchild brunette, down-home chic in jean jacket and heels, robustly pop-oriented, Schlapman blonde, countrypolitan in loose-sleeved white dress and, yes, also heels, and nasally rural. For “Drivin’ Around,” Fairchild stepped to the fore, where she remained for much of the night. Though this is a group, she’s certainly first among not-quite equals, including her husband, Westbrook. “When Someone Stops Loving You,” which he sang, is a stronger song than “Your Side of the Bed,” which Fairchild handled, but emotionally her performance smoked his.
Heartbreak isn’t Little Big Town’s first language. Carefree sprees like “Pontoon” and “Day Drinking” are what won their audience, and what kept them on their feet last night. And sometimes their playfulness spills over into vacuity, as on the relentlessly upbeat “Happy People,” which centers around that credo that none of us would be sad if we were all happy, which... uh, I guess? This was first of the group’s big quasi-political statements, followed by Schlapman’s introduction to “Sober”: “We are living in a crazy world right now, but the power of love is our greatest gift.” A sea of lit up cell phones seemed to agree with her.
Once the quartet migrated back to the B stage, they played a excellent set of tributes to dead musical greats, beginning with a snippet of “When Doves Cry” that’d be fun to hear them work up into a full arrangement (they’ve done this in every town, lest you think this was pandering), a medley of Don Williams tunes they also could have stretched out, and Fairchild’s warm take on Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.”
Other set high points included the Taylor Swift-penned “Better Man” (if Tay wants to fritter away her late 20s making rap songs with Ed Sheeran or whatever, can she please keep writing for country artists in her downtime?) and in impromptu moment when Schlapman and Fairchild indulged in a quickly harmonized snippet of Demi Lovato's “Sorry (Not Sorry).”
Fairchild’s star turn came during the first song of the encore, “Girl Crush,” a brilliant pop distillation of the homoerotic undercurrent of obsessive jealousy. The singer stood alone on the mid-arena platform as her comrades harmonized from the main stage. It was honestly a bit of a let down when the four singers were reunited onstage to close the show with their first hit, “Boondocks.” That's the thing with Little Big Town: Their good-time songs ain’t bad, but their bad-time songs are better.
Little Big Town Setlist
Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
Front Porch Thing
When Someone Stops Loving You
Little White Church
Bring It on Home
Your Side of the Bed
When Doves Cry (Prince cover)
Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good/I Believe in Love (Don Williams covers)
Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell cover)
I'm With the Band (with a chorus of the Beatles’ "With a Little Help From My Friends")
Save Your Sin
Stay All Night
Kacey Musgraves setlist
Follow Your Arrow
Keep It To Yourself
Mama’s Broken Heart
Merry Go ‘Round