When Little Big Town worked up “Rocket Man” for an Elton John tribute at the Grammys last month, they might not have been thinking, “Hey, let’s just kick off the show with it on our upcoming tour.” When you’re an arena-level touring act, it’s rather unusual to open with someone else’s hit song.
But on Friday night at the Erwin Center, the second stop on what they described from the stage as the biggest tour they’ve done to date, “Rocket Man” proved an ideal place to start. Maybe it’s because this week’s images of a space-suited mannequin cruising to the stars in Elon Musk’s Tesla were still fresh in everyone’s minds. Or perhaps the brilliant backing-screen footage of planets and asteroids just made for a great visual tone-setter.
Or it could be that playing a 1970s pop smash is in fact an ideal way to capture what Little Big Town is all about. Like Lady Antebellum, they’re an anomaly in a modern country-radio landscape dominated by bro-heavy rap-adapters such as Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean. With a co-ed lineup of two men and two women and a sensibility that leans far more on classic AM-radio pop of yesteryear, they’re probably more indebted to Abba or even Starland Vocal Band than any 21st-century act.
Regardless, they’re great at what they do, whether they’re showcasing their own hit songs or acknowledging their influences. Strolling over to a rotating secondary stage on the arena’s floor mid-set, they gave another nod to formative icons with brief chorus excerpts of two Don Williams classics followed by the Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb all-timer “Wichita Lineman.” Stripped down to just Philip Sweet’s piano and four-part vocal harmony, the song hushed the crowd with its reverent beauty.
A 90-minute set of two dozen songs allowed plenty of time for Little Big Town’s own now-extensive catalog, too. Early-career numbers such as “Boondocks” and “Bring It on Home” (from 2005’s “The Road to Here”) mixed seamlessly with newer hits “Rollin'” and “Happy People” off last year’s country chart-topping album “The Breaker.” They worked in plenty more crowd favorites along the way, including “Pontoon,” “Tornado” and the Taylor Swift-penned “Better Man.”
Though Little Big Town’s sound revolves around the four principals singing together, they all step out with vocal leads as well. Karen Fairchild was especially strong on several numbers, among them the plaintive “Lost in California,” while Kimberly Schlapman rocked the house on the hard-burnin’ “Save Your Sin.” Jimi Westbrook took the helm for “When Someone Stops Loving You,” a standout slow ballad. And Sweet — the most versatile instrumentalist of the bunch, playing guitar, piano and even drums at one point — got his turn on “Front Porch Thing.”
About the only misstep was the band’s biggest hit, delivered near the end of the show. For “Girl Crush,” which won two Grammys and two Country Music Association Awards a couple of years ago, Fairchild returned to the smaller satellite stage on her own. The rest of the group stayed on the main stage and sang their supporting roles from there. It felt a bit jarring to have them separated; the two focal points were more a distraction than an enhancement. It was actually illustrative of Little Big Town’s greatest strength: They are very much a cohesive unit, much stronger together than alone.
As such, a more joyful late-set highlight was “Day Drinking,” a hit from the same album as “Girl Crush.” Midway through the tune, the members of Austin trio Midland, who opened the show, wandered through the audience with a case of beer, smiling and tossing cans to the crowd as they made their way to the stage. When they got there, the whole scene turned into a giant party for the final bars of the song. Everyone had big smiles, including Little Big Town’s four excellent support musicians, who impressed throughout the night. (Bassist John Thomasson formerly lived in Austin and played with local luminaries such as Suzanna Choffel and Patrice Pike.)
Midland’s half-hour opening set was a bit of a hometown coming-out party for the group that set up shop in Dripping Springs a couple of years ago shortly before the release of their debut EP and album. Performing on the smaller secondary stage — which got a bit crowded with band members Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy joined by their three support players — Midland had many in the crowd singing along on their set-closing hit “Drinkin’ Problem.”
They sounded great throughout, cranking out a half-dozen songs from last year’s “On The Rocks” and giving shoutouts to area landmarks’ such as Poodie’s Hilltop Lounge and Barton Springs. And, like Little Big Town, they consciously connected the dots between their own music and past pop hits, tagging the tail-ends of songs with brief snippets of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” the Eagles’ “New Kid in Town” and John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.”
Sandwiched between Midland and Little Big Town was East Texas native and former Austinite Kacey Musgraves, a significant talent in her own right but somewhat of an odd fit on this triple bill. Musgraves’ songs and style were overall a bit more reserved than the other two acts, making her 11-song set feel like a low-key pause between two good-time throwdowns. And because she was highlighting new material from a record that won’t be out for a few weeks, it also was a bit of a challenge even for her many fans in the house.
Still, those new songs were quite good, especially “Space Cowboy,” which isn’t the interstellar travel tune its title might suggest but rather a breakup song: “You can have your space, cowboy.” And she tossed out a couple of past favorites to help keep the crowd happy, including her sociopolitical anthem “Follow Your Arrow” and a solo acoustic rendition of “Merry Go Round,” fittingly delivered from the smaller revolving stage.