ATLANTA — Sugarland received a very enthusiastic hometown welcome at the fabulous Fox Theatre here on Thursday night (April 3), sprinkling three new songs into the set list and rewarding their longtime fans with a fast-moving, high-energy set.
Among the new tunes, “Operation Working Vacation” riffs on the cool ’80s pop that still sounds great on radio. “All I Want to Do” has so many hooks it belongs in a toolbox, and “We Run” has a driving bass line that underscores its lyrics of excitement of new love. Of course, the duo has already racked up many successful singles over the last few years. When you can start off a set with “Baby Girl,” things are certainly looking good.
Charismatic singer Jennifer Nettles gave a special shout-out to her longtime fans from the stage. She and Kristian Bush had both played around Atlanta for years, in various other bands, before teaming up with Kristen Hall for Sugarland. (Hall now lives in Nashville, but Bush and Nettles remain in Georgia.) When Nettles grabbed her acoustic guitar for “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” you suddenly remember that she got her start as a singer-songwriter, but now she plays for the rafters.
It’s awkward to see, sometimes, when new artists perform like the place is going crazy for them, throwing their arms all over and being generally annoying. Some people would put Nettles in that camp, with all her facial expressions and stage moves, but I personally think she’s endearing and entertaining. Besides, at this show, the audience ate it up. In fact, the people on the floor were on their feet the whole night, even during the slow songs.
Speaking of slow songs, I think “Stay” got the biggest, loudest reaction of the night. There was no blah-blah-blah introduction, just Nettles’ subdued reading with minimal accompaniment by Bush. She has said in past interviews she was inspired to write the song after hearing Reba McEntire’s “Whoever’s in New England,” and there is a twinge of McEntire’s melodrama when Nettles sings “Stay” — although Nettles’ perspective is from the side of the “other woman.” Our two most popular CMT blog entries are about this song and video, and judging by the audience reception, “Stay” is still resonating with fans.
In addition, the duo is doing a much better job of playing off each other now. Shortly after Hall’s departure, they almost acted as if they didn’t know each other. Around that time, they were even selling T-shirts with only Nettles’ face on them. At this show, Sugarland definitely felt like a unit again. And yet, after Bush offers his introduction — “Ladies and gentlemen, JENNIFER NETTLES!” — I do think it’s only fair that he gets his own shout-out, too.
What impresses me the most about a Sugarland concert is how Nettles can move around all night long and still consistently sing on key. I don’t think she hit a bum note all night. When she’s not twanging it up for effect, she really does have a strong, magnetic voice that could lead to a long and distinctive career. When one of the duo’s new songs does hit the airwaves, probably in the next few months, you’re going to know immediately that you’re hearing Sugarland. I also like how she leans into the crowd when she sings, like she’s sharing confidences. However, I don’t know why she always tosses in “for the ladies …” when she sings one of the verses in “Something More.” I must confess, when I get home at night and the house is dirty, I’ve been known to savor a glass of red wine, too.
Of course, the band promptly returned for an encore, and I wish I could say it wasn’t a rock cover, but I suppose I should be used to this by now. Anyway, after it was over, the Sharpies were immediately uncapped, and Nettles and Bush both signed autographs from the edge of the stage for several minutes. Even the people in the middle rows could come up without being hassled by security guards. I appreciate that gesture, because no matter how big you get, in country music, you have to make that connection with the fans. In a short amount of time, Sugarland has done that in a very impressive way.