CHARLESTON, S.C. — If you can predict a country artist’s career by how well they can perform live, then Sugarland and Little Big Town are both very likely to be around for a while.
Neither of these bands should have to hide behind the extensive production values of their albums because neither one has anything to hide. In other words, they can really deliver some great singing on stage. If you’ve been on the fence about their music up until this point, catching an energetic show like the one Thursday night (Sept. 27) in Charleston, S.C., just might put you in their corner.
This is Sugarland’s first-ever tour as a headliner, and you can tell it was a thrill for both Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, who interacted with each other more than ever during the show. The two-person dynamic seems to be working now. The last time I saw them, Nettles was clearly playing the role of the star as Bush mostly played mandolin, jumped around and yelled, “Jennifer Nettles!” This time was different. Bush sang a few lines of a few songs, although Nettles kind of seemed unsure what to do when she wasn’t the one singing, so she hammed it up for the crowd — and this is another reason Sugarland is a fun band to watch. They bring the audience to their party. They have clearly taken cues from Kenny Chesney, who brought them on the road the last few years as an opening act. However, they do stop short of bringing out Uncle Kracker.
Nettles and Bush ought to put out an exercise video sometime, with all the jumping around they do. Right now, though, their latest video offering is “Stay.” The live rendition received a huge response, even though it’s just starting its ride at radio. They also offered a romantic and wistful new song that hasn’t been recorded — “Fall Into Me.” Obviously, they don’t skip any of the hits and also toss in a few cover songs, which are not the ones I would have guessed, but the crowd seemed to love it.
The most charismatic band in country music today, Sugarland really, really wants the audience to take the initiative to make a change in the world. They might as well be yelling, “Come on, volunteer!” A portion of the tour proceeds will raise money for the Shalom Foundation, which assists children in extreme poverty. If you send a $4.99 text message during the show, with some of the money going to the charity, you might get to meet the band afterwards. At one point, the concert stops dead in its tracks and some kids appear on the jumbo screens to talk about their pet projects that have made a difference in their community. The concert is billed as CMT on Tour: Sugarland 2007 — Change.
Words like “hope” flashed on the gigantic orbs on the sides of the stage at various times throughout the show. At one point, Nettles and Bush grabbed the big, white balls — not in a Soul2Soul sort of way, of course — and carried them to center stage. My seat was at an odd angle, so I didn’t see the words, yet I couldn’t miss the message: “Do something positive.”
Little Big Town balanced their middle set with radio hits and music from a forthcoming album, due Nov. 6. It’s hard to catch all the words to the new songs, but the melodies are memorable and engaging, and their harmonies are always distinctive. You can tell they really trust each other out there and that nobody is secretly waiting to go solo. The turbulent Fleetwood Mac years may possibly lie ahead, but that musical influence is already impossible to ignore. If they can pull off “Baby It’s a Fine Line” in the studio with the same power that they can in concert, they’re golden.
It’s too late now, but maybe the band should have released “Stay” as a single. (The current single is “I’m With the Band,” which is from the new CD.) Kimberly Roads sounds terrific on lead vocals, and the audience hung on every word. Somebody probably said it was too slow for radio, which is ridiculous, but at least it remains a focal point of their show. It’s hard to scale back in an arena, but both bands do a commendable job of entertaining without overpowering, which is not an easy balance to strike in contemporary country music.
Jake Owen opened the show with a brief set, and his years of playing in college bars have surely given him confidence on stage. Touring earlier this year with Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson couldn’t have hurt either. “Startin’ With Me” brought screams of recognition, but he’s definitely got a crowd-pleaser on his hands with “Yee Haw.” One song is apparently titled, “I Love Women,” and in this South Carolina crowd, he was definitely in his element.