Little Big Town’s Tornado Tour Hits Tennessee Theatre

Kacey Musgraves Open Concert in Knoxville

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Little Big Town have funneled a career’s worth of material into their top-notch Tornado tour which touched down Saturday night (Feb. 23) in Knoxville.

Surrounded by the ornate decor of the historic Tennessee Theatre and the anticipation of the sold-out crowd, the Grammy-winning band led the set with the inviting “Pavement Ends,” which happens to kick off their Tornado album, as well.

After that they grabbed the audience’s attention with “Little White Church,” delivered in a way that was more commanding (and demanding) than the radio version. With such a big year under their belt, are they suddenly copping an attitude?

No way. Little Big Town remain as likable and approachable as ever. For fans who have followed them for more than a decade, it’s surely rewarding to see them succeeding at this level. And rather than basking in the success of “Pontoon,” you get the feeling that the band members are working harder than ever to prove themselves.

First of all, their presentation was more polished than some theater concerts I’ve seen. They didn’t miss cues. They didn’t ramble. Wherever they stood on the stage, the spotlight seemed ready for them. It’s safe to say they haven’t lasted this long by just winging it up there.

And even though they make the soaring four-part harmonies sound easy, you’ve got to believe it takes some serious work to sing like that for more than an hour.

Not to say that seeing Little Big Town in concert is a chore. Quite the opposite. Familiar tunes like “Bring It on Home,” sung by Phillip Sweet, are still a treat to hear. Kimberly Schlapman offers a strong voice and an appealing personality — not to mention the fact that she attended the University of Tennessee just around the corner. And “Your Side of the Bed,” sung as a dramatic duet between Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild, plays up the husband-wife dynamic in grand fashion. Also, it’s way more mature than that little song about mmmm-motorboatin’.

Still, when the rafters rang with that familiar “Pontoon” refrain, everybody was up and dancing, despite temperatures in the 40s outside.

Other concert highlights include a mash-up of their Scattered, Smothered and Covered series (in which they put their own spin on pop songs) and an incredibly tight rendition of a newer song, “Can’t Go Back.” Both concepts are ideal for a theater setting. With the covers, you feel like everybody is in on the fun. And with their crisp rendition of “Can’t Go Back” in a smaller venue, you can really hear how intricate their harmonies are.

For this night, Little Big Town brought newcomer Kacey Musgraves to open the show. Musgraves offered several songs from her upcoming album, Same Trailer, Different Park, as well as cover of her own — Ryan Adams ’ “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High).” With smart songs and a solid voice, she has the potential to connect with fans in a big way this year. She also endeared herself to the audience by taking off her glamorous shoes early in the set and planting herself on a carpet of Astroturf. The canvas backdrop portrayed a trailer, naturally.

Both artists are bound for bigger stages in 2013. Little Big Town will hit the arenas with Keith Urban while Musgraves joins Kenny Chesney ’s stadium tour. But for fans that crave talent and musicianship in a more intimate venue, the Tornado tour might be considered a perfect storm.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.