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Little Big Town leaves the boondocks behind

Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Lowell, Mass., December 10, 2006

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Life's been good, real good, for Little Big Town in 2006. After a desultory run of the mill debut disc for a major label four years ago, they struck pay dirt with hit singles "Boondocks" and "Bring It On Home " on Clint Black's Equity label.

And three of the four members of LBT got married - two to each other in recent months.

Little Big Town extended musical and personal bliss to their fans in concert as well, drawing a strong turnout of about 90 percent of a 2,800-seat venue, an indication that they have built their own following.

They fortunately concentrated most of their efforts on their excellent second CD, "The Road to Here" with its acoustic-based, rootsy, country, rural sound. Big guitars and power chords aren't part of the mix on CD. Their self-titled debut was very generic sounding and an album that members themselves are not particularly proud of.

Little Big Town is a democracy in concert with no one member being the mic hog and all certainly capable. Instead Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet, who both play acoustic guitar, and their female cohorts, Karen Fairchild (she just married Westbrook in the fall) and Kimberly Roads, all take numerous turns at leads and speaking to the crowd.

Fairchild seems to be the most comfortable and natural of the four - as Roads said of Fairchild after she went into the crowd which had assembled at the foot of the stage on the floor - you could tell she was the queen of her sorority.

Fairchild also told a funny story about a previous visit to Boston where after a long haul from Nashville, they met a monk at a Boston Starbucks in the wee hours. He offered to put the group on the monastery's prayer list for 30 days, but the band wondered how they could get on the list for 60, according to Fairchild. Now major thanks are due the monk, according to Fairchild.

It's not so hard to see why the prayers paid off. First off, Little Big Town has a lot of good songs that are eminently catchy without necessarily always having an eye to radio. "Boondocks," with which the quartet closed the regular set, is one great song about small town life without resorting to the usual problem of country artists in the past few years - touting their redneck cred.

"Good As Gone" showcased the ability of LBT to work their harmonies quite well. The fast-paced "Welcome to the Family," sung by Westbrook, was funny.

The acoustic guitars of Westbrook and Sweet add much to the songs, while backing guitarist and mandolinist Hagan proved to be quite strong. In fact, to LBT's credit, the three backing musicians (they also employ a drummer and bassist) were not shunted to the dim lights as is usually the case.

On the negative side, one wondered how strong Little Big Town's country ties are. That sometimes can be evidenced by the covers a group chooses. LBT did well with Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," which they performed with Lindsay Buckingham on CMT's Crossroads and "Heartache Tonight," from The Eagles, though neither is really a country song.

But covering Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" as the closer to the evening? Too bad because Little Big Town is a lot more worthy than that and one would have expected more.

Little Big Town should stick with what got them where they are - a country, more acoustic-based sound than going for rock and pop sounds. That's why they enjoyed such a solid year instead of playing the boondocks.

Liz Carlisle opened with a pleasing set accompanied by a pedal steel player and keyboardist. Carlisle, a recent Harvard grad with one CD under her belt and one about to be recorded in Nashville, veers more towards the singer/songwriter end of the country spectrum.

Carlisle is not a heavy duty road warrior, but she sang with confidence and drew a very good response from the crowd, particularly satisfying no doubt for her since few probably had ever heard of her before.