Little Big Town Is So Much More Than One "Girl Crush"

Little Big Town
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
NRG Stadium
March 18, 2016

Some things are worth waiting for. Success did not come quickly to Little Big Town; neither did a spot on the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo stage. Formed in 1998, the Nashville quartet took seven years to score a Top 10 hit, seven more to reach No. 1. Not until “Girl Crush” went nuclear, thanks to some misguided country-radio folk’s uproar over the heartbroken ballad’s supposed lesbian overtones (which in turn helped push it into the pop-crossover stratosphere), did Little Big Town wind up on NRG Stadium’s doorstep. Hopefully it won’t be a one-and-done situation.

The signs are encouraging. Little Big Town is an experienced group in which all four principals bring something essential to the table. Their songs are intricately arranged, particularly the vocal harmonies, but constructed of simple melodies and rhythms that translate easily to large venues. They don’t write fluff; even their innocuous-sounding party songs are a little edgy, and their more serious stuff tackles adult themes without overdosing on drama. They also happen to be on an artistic roll — save that first breakout hit, 2005’s “Boondocks”; 2010’s “Little White Church”; part of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; and one more cover to be revealed a little later, their rodeo set was drawn entirely from their two most recent albums.

Their music easily filled up the stadium Friday night, even if the weather-dampened official attendance of 65,006 didn’t quite. The harmonies were on point from the beginning, swerving from the funky Southern gospel of “Church” (in which the female narrator demands her man put a ring on it) to the boozy “Pontoon,” a sun-splashed aquatic adventure co-piloted by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, and then “Front Porch Thing,” a swampy celebration of life’s simple pleasures with birthday boy Phillip Sweet on lead vocals. Three songs in, the positive energy was already off the charts.

Few bands can keep a show “up” all the way through, but even when Little Big Town started shifting into minor keys, they kept the pace brisk as the songs continued taking on interesting new shapes and colors. The dusty, Western-themed “Faster Gun” slipped in a few Ennio Morricone-style tumbleweed-guitar twangs; back-to-back snugglers “Pain Killer” and “Sober” smartly rejuvenated the old love-as-addiction cliché (both songs happen to be lovely to listen to as well); and the vengeful “Tornado,” a showcase for Fairchild sung under glowering red stage lights, kept adding interesting wrinkles all the way to the end. Some groups struggle in concert to replicate that headphone-worthy studio aesthetic, where the instrumental and vocal layers stack up and intertwine until they boil over, but not Little Big Town.

It’s the sort of thing Fleetwood Mac used to do, which brings us to that other cover. It should come as no great surprise that Little Big Town did “The Chain” Friday; the similarities between the two groups are unmistakeable. Besides the mixed-gender lineup and lack of a fixed lead singer, their music shares that angst-fueled, almost-intangible feeling of going for it live. Still, how well they killed “The Chain” Friday might have surprised everyone: Jimi Westbrook, LBT’s other dude, nailed that tortured angst that Lindsey Buckingham is so good at, and the rest of their superb backing band really sank their chops in deep, especially that rolling bass line. That same abandon marked the evening’s two other go-for-broke rockers, the fiery “Save Your Sin” — a song from 2014’s Pain Killer that, with Schlapman singing lead, sounded like a great lost Dixie Chicks track — and “Stay All Night,” a wicked little tribute to ’60s soul shouters like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding capably handled by Westbrook.

And now we’ve reached the point where it’s time to talk about “Girl Crush.” A kissin’ cousin to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Little Big Town's now-signature song is almost painfully simple even as it is exquisitely painful. Fairchild’s stiff-upper-lip vocals transcend simple jealousy to find a much more sensual place; no wonder “Girl Crush” made some conservative types squirm. Friday, the crowd obliged by singing lustily as they waved their phone-lights, such a cathartic moment that even the rousing refrain of closer “Boondocks” (think Queen goes to the Grand Old Opry) couldn’t stanch the steady stream toward the exits.

Here’s hoping Little Big Town pays another call on Houston as soon as possible. There’s nobody quite like them, either in Nashville or the wider pop landscape — an unmistakably country group with songs that can easily rock an NFL stadium, while others reach such a deep-seated level of intimacy it makes some people uncomfortable and drives others wild. That’s not easy to do at all.

Little White Church
Front Porch Thing
Faster Gun
Pain Killer
Pavement Ends
Jolene (Dolly Parton cover)
Stay All Night
Save Your Sin
The Chain (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Day Drinking
Girl Crush
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray