Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sugarland opens Verizon's season with interactive set

Sugarland made a name for itself as a country act, but the duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush demonstrated their love for all sorts of styles Friday during its “In Your Hands” concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.

First off the pair didn’t opt for typical established opening acts that are already well known to country fans. Instead rising country artist Canaan Smith (whose sound straddles adult contemporary acoustic rock and country) and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart warmed up the crowd. More on the latter, who delivered a set of bluesy new songs and old favorites, later.

Sugarland casually opened its set with a stripped down rendition of “Wide Open” with Bush on guitar and Nettles banging a drum and singing her heart out loudly in front of the curtain that hid its five-piece band. As the whole band launched into “Stuck Like Glue” the curtain rose to reveal a simple stage set. The band gathered on one level with only the drums and keys on risers a couple of feet off the stage. The setup was indicative of the nature of the show which centered on music and fans not glitz and props. Nettles in tight red pants and a shiny gold tank and Bush in a baby blue t-shirt and vest, led the band through a string of hits beginning with “Settlin’,” “Everyday America,” “It Happens” and “Tonight.” The singer turned down the twang on the latter although her homespun charm and thick as molasses accent remained the most country thing on stage all night.

The bulk of Sugarland’s set list referenced the concert tour’s title, “In Your Hands." Fans were asked to scrawl their favorite tracks on cardboard or, in one case, a professionally made banner that Nettles compared to something from “Game of Thrones,” and submit requests by text and online. The first request? Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” which the group a blast with. 

It followed that with “Little Miss," “Every Girl Like Me," “Already Gone,” and “Run.” Bush sang Nettles’ duet partner Matt Nathanson’s parts on the latter. His voice didn’t soar over the band as well as her powerful pipes do, but the harmonies were nice. Nettles’ voice is a powerful instrument that rises above everything with ease. She completely captivated the crowd during the ballad “Stay,” a tearjerker-meets-independent woman anthem written from the perspective of “the other woman.” Women in particular joined her in sisterly salute.

She stopped midway into “Baby Girl” to invite a nine-year-old girl on stage (the second such guest of the night). Nettles was right when she described the scene - with the girl singing as expressively as Nettles - as “cute overload.”

“All I Want To Do” was another hit with the ladies (kudos to the creators of the “Do Not Disturb” sign that Bush wore around his neck during part of the song). The biggest surprise of the night was the band’s own request for “Ice Ice Baby.” “I’m not afraid,” Nettles shrugged before launching into a rapid fire first verse and chorus of the Vanilla Ice hit before veering back into “All I Want’s” “Oohoohooohoooh” refrain. The crowd went crazy. It was yet another moment that illustrated the vast musical pool Sugarland pulls from.

It ended its regular set with the bouncy `80s ska/new wave throwback, “Find the Beat Again” (which sounds very No Doubt) before encoring with a stark rendition of fellow Georgians R.E.M.’s “The One I Love.” In their hands, with only acoustic guitar and chiming mandolin, the song seemed like a letter from a soldier going off to war. The feel good spirit elevated again another peak - “Something More” - before it ended the set with the song that bears its name.

Sugarland’s rocking ways are no surprise considering their history. Both were in alternative folk-rock and bluesy folk-rock outfits that toured the Southeast before joining forces in Sugarland. Charlotteans may remember his Billy Pilgrim or her Jennifer Nettles Band and Soul Miner’s Daughter. Both played here.

I don’t know when Stewart last graced a Charlotte stage. His performance was quite a treat for Eurythmics fans that got to hear different versions of “Here Comes the Rain Again,” “Missionary Man,” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Keyboardist Dana Glover (wiping streams of mascara from her cheeks at one point - I'm assuming she had something in her eye) took on Annie Lennox’s big, soulful vocals on those tracks.

Stewart must surround himself with beautiful women with powerful voices because both she and bassist/soul singer Nik West were gorgeous, talented figures on stage. What was more than Stewart’s rendering of Eurythmics’ favorites as well as Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (which he wrote), was his original solo material and introductions. He talked about falling in love with Lennox prior to “Magic in the Blues," for instance. Those moments gave the amphitheatre show an intimate feel. I hope he’ll return for a solo headlining gig after the release of “The Ringmaster General” in September.