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  1. Arts & Entertainment
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Little Big Town fights the flu through ‘Nightfall’ in Clearwater

On the first of two nights at Ruth Eckerd Hall, a stricken singer made sure the country stars’ show went on. | Concert review
From left: Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild and Phillip Sweet of Little Big Town perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Feb. 26, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

Karen Fairchild had the flu. There was no hiding it. And it was killing her.

“I’m literally about to cry, not being able to sing for you the way I want to,” the Little Big Town singer told a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Wednesday. “I’m crying like Michael Jordan, I’m sweating like Whitney Houston."

So when the country vocal stars decided, after a quick debate, to attempt the Taylor Swift-penned Better Man, Fairchild called in a sub: The band’s assistant, the fortuitously named Taylor Smith, who stepped in alongside Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Fairchild’s husband, Jimi Westbrook. Sure enough, Smith nailed Fairchild’s part, proving everyone in Nashville really is a secret musician.

“I’ve lost my job,” Fairchild said as Smith left to an ovation.

Nah, not hardly. Better Man was just a little detour, an unexpectedly human moment, on a night that was always going to feel a bit different from the norm.

On this tour in support of their latest album Nightfall, Little Big Town is trading arenas and amphitheaters for historic theaters, often for multiple shows (Wednesday was the first of back-to-back nights at Ruth Eckerd Hall). The more intimate theatrical spaces play to Nightfall’s dramatic dynamics, giving the pontoon-rockin’ day drinkers, all between 45 and 50, an age-appropriate space to mature through middle age.

Kimberly Schlapman, left, and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Feb. 26, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

The bummer about Fairchild’s flu is that Nightfall is kind of her baby. Little Big Town’s members swap around lead vocals, but Fairchild co-wrote or sang lead on a majority of Nightfall’s 13 tracks, most of which the band played Wednesday, often backdropped by evocative night-sky imagery. (One notable casualty of the slightly shortened set: The Grammy-nominated The Daughters, a pointed critique of how society thinks good girls ought to act.)

The show’s celestial mise en scene amplified Nightfall’s moody sounds (the lush organs and ghostly heartbeat of Next to You, the pulsing crescendo of River of Stars, the aching piano gospel of Forever and a Night) and surprisingly dark undertones (the bittersweet Throw Your Love Away, the downright self-loathing Sugar Coat). Even the sweet, James Taylorish Bluebird, a song written for band members’ children, stayed outside the fringes of proper tailgatin’ country.

But no one goes night to day — or perhaps Nightfall to Day Drinking — like Little Big Town. For every empathetic ballad like Problem Child, they had a boisterous boot-stomper or two, like the vindictive Tornado or righteously feisty Boondocks. They’d slap on glee-club grins and shimmy right through the sunshine-sippin’ Pontoon, whistle-riffic Day Drinking or clever bottoms-upper Wine, Beer, Whiskey.

Schlapman (Sober), Sweet (Forever and a Night) and Westbrook (a faithful cover of Elton John’s Rocket Man) did their thing on the songs where they sang lead, and helped cover Fairchild on the ones where she needed it. That included their closer and biggest hit, Girl Crush, which put the flu-stricken Fairchild back in the spotlight at the end of a long night on her feet.

She did her best, and even hit a couple of high notes, but skipped a bunch more, and let the crowd and her bandmates help out as much as possible. It all gave Girl Crush an extra oomph of teamwork and togetherness, and put fans even more on Fairchild’s side. When it ended, Sweet came over to squeeze her shoulders as the crowd stood and cheered.

“I appreciate your kindness to me tonight,” she told them.

They weren’t just being kind. It was one gutty performance. There was no hiding that, either.

LITTLE BIG TOWN

Their two-night stand with Caitlin Smith continues at 8 p.m. Thursday at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Tickets are $49 and up. Click here for details.

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