By John Benson
Little Big Town may be from Alabama but singer-guitarist Phillip Sweet admits the country act has a special fondness for Northeast Ohio.
No, affection isn’t tied to the fact the group early in its career opened up for “500 Miles” one-hit wonder act The Proclaimers in Cleveland. Instead, the love affair is tied to another opening slot, a 2006 gig for Keith Urban at Quicken Loans Arena.
“When ‘Boondocks’ was breaking, Keith heard the record and had us come out and open,” said Sweet, calling from Birmingham, Ala. “Actually, the first show of that arena tour was Cleveland. And we were nervous but at the same time ready and excited and hungry. I remember that show so well. It was the first time we were able to bring that sound to an arena, and it felt so good. It was a special night.”
That special feeling comes full circle when Little Big Town returns once again as opener for Keith Urban on his “Light the Fuse Tour,” which includes a Thursday show at Blossom Music Center and Friday date at First Niagara Pavilion.
“Now we’re coming back and this tour is so different,” Sweet said. “We’re in different places. As far as an arena stage, back then we were green on how to entertain on that level and do it confidently. Now we do feel that confidence where it’s not rehearsed. It just feels natural, like we were meant to be there.”
It turns out feeling natural is a theme of late for Little Big Town. After spending 13 years together and selling more than 1.5 million records (including Top 10 country hits “Boondocks,” “Bring It On Home” and “Little White Church”), the vocal-harmony group felt the time was right for a challenge that led the outfit into more of an organic approach.
Previously the quartet — Sweet, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman and Jimi Westbrook — would write and record the conventional Music City way, with songwriters pitching songs and veteran studio musicians bringing the tunes to life.
Sweet said when it came time to write its latest album “Tornado,” the act needed to change things up a bit. The idea was to write and record with its studio band in a fashion akin to its concert schedule. So coming right off the road earlier this year, they set up shop with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Patty Griffin), in place of longtime collaborator Wayne Kirkpatrick.
Sweet said there’s an edge to the material that’s obvious throughout the album but none more so than on the record’s lead single “Pontoon,” which went to No. 1 earlier this year.
Currently there’s a sense among band members and the industry that Little Big Town is ready to make the jump to headlining arenas in its near future.
“We’ve felt a shift in our lives and in a way the career is moving,” Sweet said. “It’s definitely taking on a different level, one that we haven’t seen before or experienced before, which is great. We’re just thrilled about it. Every time we get to do something new and different, it adds to that momentum and builds that confidence even more for us. We’ve definitely always wanted to be that band that headlines the big venues in the world, and I feel like we’re heading that way.”