Many of the larger country music acts I’ve seen played airy, open, outdoor spaces like Merriweather or Jiffy Lube Live. If it was an indoor show, they were in the arenas around town. Smaller, more intimate country acts tend to perform at The Birchmere, Fillmore, or Ram’s Head Live. The Anthem is somewhere in the middle. It might be why acts normally suited for arenas have confetti and a jumbotron. It’s all about the spectacle over the music.
It was really interesting to see how each act utilized The Anthem’s layout last Saturday evening. Midland, even though they are technically country, seem an easier fit for the space. Their performance style and look feels almost more glam rock than country with how they work the stage and engage with the audience.
Kacey Musgraves gave a more subdued set than I’ve previously seen. I think this was mainly due to the fact that she was playing a lot of songs from her upcoming album Golden Hour. Her new songs feel like they have such a lyrical focus that she needed to not have so many bells and whistles on this tour. When I saw her play her previous, headlining tour, at Ram’s Head Live, the stage was adorned with Christmas decorated neon cacti and Kacey rocked a big hair, big flair look. This time she traded her Dolly Parton fringe for a little black dress (she kept her “quirk” to some sparkly tights). Perhaps it’s because she’s the opener or this could be her new vibe for the new album, but there was something that felt slightly off about this performance.
Musgraves did most of her act in front of the theatre curtain and then at one point security walked her from the front to the smaller rear stage to do some performances. This rear stage was fun. It’s something that gets utilized a lot at arena country shows for more intimate songs. Though while Little Big Town did a nice job of using the rear stage for a softer moment of their set, Kacey didn’t seem to know exactly how to differentiate her set between the two stages.
Kacey sounded great though. “Merry Go Round” brought a bit of her signature bling with a sequin mic stand. She also threw out a couple nice surprises like singing “Mama’s Broken Heart” (which she wrote initially for herself, then gave the song to Miranda Lambert and it became a mega hit and helped launch Kacey). It was very cool to hear her take on the song which had more of a snarky edge than Lambert’s unhinged, manic version. She also brought out her newlywed husband, singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, to sing her new single “Space Cowboy”. Interesting song choice for a duet because it’s about letting a lover go, but it sounded gorgeous none-the-less. Her other new single “Butterflies” also has the sweet familiarity of her previous hits. New songs, like “Elvis” and “Wild Horse” have neo-soul and disco takes on country, respectively. Her mix of the familiar and the genre-bending sounds for this new album (out March 30) got me really amped for it’s release. The show ended with very Kacey shower of confetti. Unfortunately the set ended on a bit of a sour note with a mildly-rattled Kacey saying midway through her final song that she was having ear-piece issues and kind of storming off at the end. It left the feeling that even though her new songs are strong, she’s still finding her groove in a larger venue as an opening act. Which is funny because she’s previously opened arena shows for Katy Perry. But Little Big Town doesn’t have that bubblegum exposition stage show to hide behind.
Little Big Town turned The Anthem into their slightly downsized version of an arena concert. They still brought a bit of the arena with them. They brought a jumbotron. The screen was used to varying levels of success and annoyingness throughout their performance. At the very beginning, it was used to project trippy space videos as they sang a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” It then was used very literally some more during “Driving Around” (videos of a desert road) and “Pontoon” (a pontoon on the water). It felt a bit like on-the-nose overkill. They mostly used it like a typical concert jumbotron to show them close-up performing in the moment. It seemed ridiculous for a venue like The Anthem. It’s a large space but visibility is really good almost no matter where you are in the space.
One of the times it was well-utilized was when they played a video to accompany their song “Happy People.” That video was a series of diverse strangers of all ages and races dancing and smiling. Yes, also very literal, but so charming and you couldn’t help but get those happy vibes vicariously. I only wish the audience of the event, while representing all ages, represented all races as well. Representation, even along gender lines, is a major issue in country music and is unfortunately mirrored by the audiences.
Though Little Big Town’s performance and voices can rock a large arena, it filled the space of The Anthem in this very satisfying way. It was kind of sweet to see the band engage with fans in the more approachable space. At one point, Kimberly Sclapman (the spunky curly haired blond of the group), took a delighted fan’s cell phone during a song to snap a picture of the fans and a selfie from the stage. It was not distracting to either the audience or performers, it just felt like a sweet, natural interaction.
Little Big Town has been around twenty years and the chemistry they have is undeniable. The fact that they’re a foursome of unique, talented voices really lets them get a great range of sound. It’s fairly unique for most country bands, who normally stick to a pretty homogenous sound. LBT, on the other hand, have a talent from transitioning easily to a softer song like “Front Porch Swing” to the sexy “Faster Gun” to the barn burning, boot stomper “Little White Church to the heartwrenching Taylor Swift penned “Better Man.” Instead of feeling dizzying, the audience feels like they’re going for a ride because LBT is so self-assured as a group. They utilized the rear stage perfectly for their quieter covers of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” (that they did on this year’s CMA Awards) and Prince’s “Doves Cry.”
Another band given multiple tributes during this country lineup was, surprisingly, The Beatles. Kacey Musgraves entered to their spacey sounding “Because (The World is Round).” Little Big Town did the ultimate Beatles nod with their moving take on “A Little Help From My Friends” with a video playing behind them of tour clips over the past twenty years. The video had the madcap, silly feel of A Hard Day’s Night. Maybe it’s ambitious to align oneself with one of the greatest bands of all time, but it’s a testament to Little Big Town’s diverse song styles that their influences go beyond just country music.