Little Big Town @ The Ritz, Manchester, England 11/2/2015

Grammy award winners and recent Opry inductees Little Big Town first played on English shores at the 2013 Country 2 Country festival and had, according to the band, been waiting for the chance to come back ever since with this being the first opportunity. Just more proof of the good that the annual festival does in introducing bands to the passionate fans we have on these shores – something that you really have to see to believe.

The Ritz in Manchester has hosted The Band Perry, Eric Church, Kacey Musgraves, Old Crow Medicine Show and Darius Rucker in the last eighteen months and is fast becoming an institution for country music in the North of England. With a lineup like that all we can say is keep ’em comin’ guys!

The show was opened by English act The Shires. This presented a huge opportunity for a band who are on the rise in this country in a big way at the moment and release their first album ‘Brave’ next month. So popular have the pre-orders of the album been that the male half of The Shires, Ben Earle, made the announcement that it is currently on course for a possible top 10 chart entry which would be the first for any English country act in history – if this isn’t reason enough to make the purchase then I don’t know what is! The fact the album looks set to be a cracker certainly helps!

The actual set from The Shires was stripped back slightly from their recent joint headline tour with Ward Thomas and comprised of the duo and an extra slide guitarist. It was a good and engaging set from the band which showcased the quality of their vocals and song writing. They rattled through 30 minutes with a catalogue of their fast-becoming hits. It has to be said that the set did perhaps lack a little bit of the energy that would have really got people listening and perked some ears up – a full band would have certainly complemented them but this isn’t to take anything away from the skill it requires to play a set which is so heavily reliant on the songs and vocals as an opening act. As ever Ben Earle was comfortable in front of the fans and seemed focused on putting the band in the spotlight with the quality of the songs. As much as I loathe to say it I still found Crissie Rhodes on-stage banter to be a little ‘Butlins’ for my liking but maybe this is something that’ll come with time and more shows.

Little Big Town hit the stage at 9pm and did so with a huge bang. Their backing band kicked things off with an instrumental intro before the foursome appeared and kicked off with ‘Turn The Lights On’ before following up with two more from their latest album ‘Painkiller’ in ‘Day Drinking’ and ‘Quit Breaking Up With Me’. I’ve come to realise recently that this album really was underrated by me initially which was proven not least by the fact that these songs really got the crowd going and kicked things off at break neck speed. The sheer quality of Karen Fairchild’s vocals was the first thing to stand out for me and it continued throughout the set.

The set itself was very heavy on songs from the new album but this was in no way a negative thing. The fact that the band have such confidence in the new tunes and are so keen to showcase them just added to the energy and excitement of the performance. The usual hits were also scattered throughout the set such as ‘Front Porch Thing’ and ‘Little White Church’ as well as a rousing cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ which absolutely blew the roof off the place. Ironically, with it not being an original Little Big Town cut, this song showcased the bands individual talents more than any other song. Not only did they nail the vocal harmonies as you’d expect but they let their backing musicians step out of the shadows and show their quality. The guitarist and bassist with the band were absolutely superb all night but really showed it off during this song.

The band all looked thrilled to be there all night. There is no accounting for how important this is for a crowd – especially one that is probably aware that the headliners are playing a show in a venue about a tenth of what they’re used to in the States. Phillip Sweet spent most of the night throwing guitar picks out to the crowd, Jimi Westbrook had a constant smile on his face and Karen Fairchild and Kimberley Schlapman showed the type of stage presence that is an example to any up and coming bands. They all even found time to sign a copy of their LP for a fan in the crowd during the show whilst engaging in some terrible impressions of our native accent – all done with a pinch of salt and great humour. All in all they came across as likeable people who were there for a good time.

The set ended with the bands ‘big three’ songs with ‘Tornado’ and ‘Pontoon’ before an encore and a truly stunning version of ‘Boondocks’ with Jimi Westbrook showing off some seriously powerful vocals.

Having seen many US country acts in the UK Little Big Town were without doubt one of the most impressive. With such a wealth of talent in the band it would be difficult not to impress but the attitude shown by the band just takes it to the next level. It really comes as no surprise that these guys have had such success recently with the critical acclaim for their latest record, Grammy awards and, of course, their invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. The show they put on just goes to show why they have achieved all of this.

With rumours of another UK tour to come later this year I would recommend any one who can to grab a ticket and get to a show.

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