Sounding Board

7 Observations From Kacey Musgraves’ Oh, What A World Tour

When Kacey Musgraves released Golden Hour last March, she tapped into a seemingly bottomless well of critical hosannas. Yours truly was personally responsible for a significant percentage of that praise. I rhapsodized about Golden Hour again and again and again and again, and then, when we named it the best album of 2018, I did it one more time.

So you will not be surprised to learn that I was enthusiastically anticipating the Oh, What A World Tour, which Musgraves brought to my city last night. Nor will it shock you to discover that I thought the show was good. As a polar vortex blew into Columbus, she turned a sold-out club called Express Live (yes, it’s named after the clothing store) into a warm, welcoming dream state. The rest of her North American dates are sold out, too, but I urge you to enjoy the show if you get the opportunity. First, though, please enjoy the following observations from last night’s gig.

1. Wow, she plays every song from Golden Hour!

No, really: All 13 tracks from Golden Hour made it on the setlist last night. Not just obvious singles like the tearjerking “Space Cowboy” and the effervescent “Butterflies” and the disco gallop “High Horse” but every single deep cut, too. Normally I’d call that overkill, especially for an artist with a back catalog that includes Pageant Material and Same Trailer Different Park. But Golden Hour is one of those rare records where every song is special, and this tour is their moment to shine before some of them disappear into rarity status.

It’s possible that the true heads in the audience left wishing they’d heard more older material — even I was surprised not to hear “Biscuits” — but as someone whose appreciation for Musgraves increased exponentially with Golden Hour, this was the perfect punctuation for a year spent obsessing over the album. I feel grateful to have witnessed her spunky run through “Velvet Elvis” and her moving performance of minimal ballad “Mother.” And opening with “Slow Burn” into “Wonder Woman” into “Butterflies” into “Lonely Weekend” into “Happy & Sad” is the definition of the ever-popular a mood.

2. That said, her old stuff really snuck up on me.

I always enjoyed Musgraves’ music, but I can’t pretend I was riding hard for her before Golden Hour. That was a mistake. Everyone who was paying close attention at the time has already explained how gifted she is at capturing the social nuances of small-town life. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are detailed, instantly recognizable portraits, presented with an artfulness that rivals Friday Night Lights. And extra-twangy selections like self-care anthem “High Time” and roots romp “Family Is Family” proved she can go fully retro without losing her unique disposition. Take it from a Golden Hour diehard: these were some of the most enjoyable moments of the night. Anyone who jumped aboard the hype train last year owes it to themselves to go back and brush up.

3. This was not your average country concert.

The idea that Kacey Musgraves is veering down her own path away from country tradition is a well-worn cliché by now, but I don’t imagine there are many country shows where people in the audience will randomly ask you your astrological sign. Onstage, there was nary a cowboy hat nor ball cap to be seen among her band, a group of Nashville pros decked out in brown suits over matching T-shirts or turtlenecks. Musgraves herself donned a colorful striped vintage suit (the image above is from her show in Michigan earlier this month). I don’t think she ever mentioned pickup trucks or blue jeans, but she did make time to campaign for inclusivity. Also, the show closed out with a disco beat, and it wasn’t the first one of the night.

4. The acoustic interlude was especially well done.

My philosophy with live shows is generally that I want to hear the song performed faithfully unless some new arrangement can equal or improve upon the studio version. Too many times I’ve seen bands attempt to spruce up their songs in concert and ultimately screw up the dynamics instead. Years ago I watched Foo Fighters ruin the taut, intense “Monkey Wrench” by doing a loose extended vamp before the final verse — the part that begins, “One last thing before I quit!” All the energy was sucked out of a moment that, on record, had been exhilarating. It was a serious bummer.

Fortunately, the intimate interlude during Musgraves’ set amplified what was beautiful about her songs by making them quieter. The entire band gathered near the front of the stage, many playing acoustic versions of their instruments, but only playing them when necessary. Their willingness to pop in and out of songs when needed created a true less-is-more situation. The aforementioned “Mother” was already stripped-down on Golden Hour, and it remained powerful on stage with just Musgraves, her guitar, and some extremely spare accompaniment. “Oh, What A World,” the one with the Daft Punk vocoders, became earthy and organic without losing its sense of supernatural bliss. “Family Is Family” was a proper hoe-down. And the trick they pulled with “Love Is A Wild Thing,” beginning in this scaled-back mode and switching back to the full electrified setup for the big finish, was a lovely thing to witness.

5. Her taste in cover tunes neatly reflected the sound of her own music.

Musgraves performed two songs by other people last night. Near the end of the main set, she burned through Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive.” And in the encore, she slipped in a rendition of Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon.” She turned the pop song a little country, with pedal steel flourishes and the latent twang in her voice. And she infused the country song with pop and electronic elements that would’ve been verboten on country radio back in 1991. It was a pleasant extension of what she does in her own music, the way she blurs the lines between genres and tugs traditional sounds in untraditional directions.

6. Her taste in opening acts is impeccable.

The support on this tour is smartly booked. Musgraves selected a range of women whose music intersects with parts of her own aesthetic at different points but complement her in various ways. Heartfelt indie rocker Soccer Mommy and soft-pop songbird Natalie Prass have opened some of them. There’s also a Nashville electro-pop act called Sinclair that I wasn’t previously familiar with. Presumably that was Musgraves’ intent: giving listeners from different corners of her fan base the chance to discover something new. Her aesthetic mastery extends even to her choice of opening acts.

Last night the first act on stage was Liza Anne, whose punchy rock songs overflow with personality and are enjoyably accented with bits of pop and country. (Her debut Fine But Dying was one of my favorite sleeper picks of 2018; start with these two songs.) Liza Anne was clearly stoked to be opening for Kacey Musgraves; she told us as much, but so did all the excitement and nervous energy that translated into a gung-ho performance. Remember what I was saying above about changing your songs for the live show? Liza Anne and her band amped up their energy just enough to unlock a new level of brilliance in these casually excellent songs.

7. This might be the last chance to see Musgraves up close and personal.

Last night’s venue is a standing-room black box with a capacity of 2,200. Some of the places Musgraves is playing on this tour are sit-down theaters that may hold a slightly larger audience than that, but they’re sold out across the board. She received deafening praise from critics. She already won Album Of The Year at the CMAs, and she’s up for the same award at the Grammys next month. Given all the attention Golden Hour has received — not from country radio (ugh), but seemingly from everywhere else — I wonder whether she’ll be leveling up to larger venues next album cycle. I’d be curious to hear how such thoughtful, intimate music plays in the context of arena. For better or worse, maybe in a couple years we’ll find out if she continues to give us butterflies at superstar scale.