Review: Little Big Town, Chris Stapleton cap Tampa's Gasparilla party with 'Throwdown By the Bay' at Amalie Arena
Few things scream Gasparilla like a little day drinking on your very own pontoon.
That made Little Big Town, the Grammy-winning quartet behind, well, Day Drinking and Pontoon, the perfect choice to close out U.S. 103.5’s Throwdown By the Bay on Saturday, before 7,804 country fans and Gasparilla stragglers at Tampa’s Amalie Arena.
"We got a bunch of drunk pirates in here tonight, or what?" smirked the night's other big draw, CMA sensation Chris Stapleton, tippling a tumbler of amber toward the crowd.
More than a few, to be sure. Big country concerts are an underrated Gasparilla day tradition -- Taylor Swift in 2008, George Strait in 2011, Zac Brown Band in 2012 -- making U.S. 103.5’s decision to shift the show to this date a smart one. Trade your tri-corner for a cowboy hat, and voila: You're set for the after-party.
Another wise move: Throwdown No. 2 was a musical 180 from 2014's inaugural bro-down, which starred alpha-male hellraisers Brantley Gilbert, Tyler Farr and Colt Ford. Saturday’s show was a much more gender-inclusive affair, as evidenced by opening duo Maddie and Tae punctuating a puckish, poppy set with their feisty repudiation of all things mansplanatory, Girl in a Country Song.
But it was the two top names atop the bill, Little Big Town and Stapleton, who ensured this Nashville free-for-all truly was a party fit for all.
Stapleton has dislodged country music from its foundation since his widely acclaimed LP Traveller swept the Country Music Association Awards in November. Two weeks ago, he was playing Saturday Night Live; two weeks from now, Traveller will compete for Album of the Year at this year’s Grammys.
It may feel like he's come out of nowhere -- and on Saturday, he kind of did, entering the stage with no fanfare, house lights still blazing. But make no mistake, Stapleton is an extraordinary performer, blessed with a wavering wail he can wield like a flamethrower, and a high-register roar that would make Sammy Hagar happy.
Frequently locking eyes with his wife, muse and backup singer Morgane (their weary blues duet on the traditional You Are My Sunshine was a highlight) Stapleton laid waste to a good chunk of Traveller, howling in anguish on Fire Away and washing his guitar in a swamp of distortion on the Gothic story-song Was It 26.
Though he made his name as a Nashville songwriter, Stapleton's got the soul of a rocker with an renegade streak a mile wide. He slow-jammed his band intros in the style of Teddy Pendergrass. Might As Well Get Stoned earned a standing O, thanks in no small part to ex-Waylon Jennings sideman Robby Turner's crazy-distorted slide solos. And The Devil Named Music was pure church, again fueled by Turner's fiery organ.
Stapleton offered requisite tips of the cap to outlaw country (a chug-a-lugging romp through Waylon’s I Ain't Living Long Like This) and Southern rock (Florida man Tom Petty's You Don't Know How It Feels, rendered with blues-bar bravado).
And while he didn’t bring CMA good luck charm Justin Timberlake to duet on Tennessee Whiskey, that old George Jones wrecking ball still fits him like hand-me-down Carhartt. So raucous was that closing number that the hooting, hollering crowd nearly demanded a rare mid-show encore – and for a moment, before the realities of the night's schedule sunk in, it looked like the stunned crew was considering it.
Stapleton is no easy act to follow -- multiple ticketholders told me they were stunned he wasn't closing the show -- but Little Big Town opening with Day Drinking, that chirpy, irresistible ode to midday debauchery, is an effective way to go about it.
Offering a melodic palate-cleanser to Stapleton’s whiskey-soaked set, Little Big Town offered hook after hook, harmony after harmony, with singers Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman roaming every inch of the stage to spread their charm as far as it would go. Fairchild even donned a string of chunky white beads lobbed from some pirates in the crowd.
“This song’ll definitely apply to y’all,” she said, introducing, um, Sober.
As a foursome, Fairchild, Schlapman and singer-guitarists Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet wielded their coed vocals wisely. Darker tunes like Bones, Faster Gun or Turn the Lights On harkened in a nice, rusty way to Fleetwood Mac’s Chains. (Wrapped in a billowing shroud, Fairchild both looked and sounded mighty Stevie on Tornado.) And the soulful chorus they created on Bring It On Home and an a cappella cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene filled the arena with gospelly spirit.
There were moments when all the mic-swapping gave the impression of a choreographed Vegas revue – but then again, Little Big Town have enough huge hits that they can pull that off. None are bigger than Girl Crush, the most popular country song of the past year, a smoky, swoony ode to envy that filled the arena with screams and disco-ball sparkles.
Little Big Town will soon head to Los Angeles for the Grammys, where Girl Crush is nominated for Song of the Year, and their Pain Killer will square off with Stapleton's Traveller for Best Country Album. It’s sure to be a heck of a party. But it might not top Gasparilla day in Tampa.
-- Jay Cridlin