Sugarland made its first Nashville appearance as a headlining act Saturday (April 16) at Bridgestone Arena. By the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, it was an appearance long overdue.
Little Big Town, the vocal quartet, and singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson were the show’s openers.
The crowd — at least that part of it that was seated on the arena floor — seemed to have its own dynamic, quite apart from what was happening onstage. Many were on their feet and swaying to beats only they could hear before the first act came on.
This being its Incredible Machine tour, Sugarland performed against a backdrop that looked part warehouse, part factory and part machine shop. There were cogs turning, furnaces blasting and assembly lines humming to reinforce the mechanical theme.
A low footbridge arched across the face of the ever-changing display. And the actions onstage were projected into a giant circular screen high above the performers.
As noteworthy as the other performances were, Jennifer Nettles, Sugarland’s lead singer, pretty much ruled the evening.
It wasn’t just her brassy, nasalized voice and lithe dancer’s body that did the trick. It was also the amazing rapport she established with the audience from her first note onward. With her big glistening eyes darting everywhere, she conveyed the illusion she was singing to everyone individually — and drawing great energy and satisfaction from the experience.
Nettles and co-Sugarlander Kristian Bush opened with “All We Are” and then barreled through such familiars as “Stuck Like Glue,” “It Happens,” “Settlin'” and “Tonight.” The crowd was so caught up in the songs, it routinely interrupted them with cheers and applause.
Nettles took a breather after “Tonight” to look out into the audience and read aloud and respond to some of the forest of signs waving for her attention.
Then it was on to the lilting “All I Want to Do,” “Incredible Machine,” “Every Girl Like Me” and the duo’s current single, “Little Miss.”
Nathanson returned to the stage to sing a pulsating love song with Nettles, which she said would be on Nathanson’s forthcoming album but did not identify by title.
Next came “Baby Girl,” the 2004 hit that launched Sugarland’s recording career.
“Do you like surprises, Nashville?” Nettles teased the crowd.
“Somebody needs a guitar,” Bush chimed in, holding up the instrument to be given away.
“Oh, but it gets better, Nashville,” Nettles continued, as she signed the guitar with a flourish.
Holding it aloft for everyone to see, Bush marched into the crowd and went all the way to the back of the arena before handing it up to a girl seated in the first tier of seats.
Turning back to the music, Jennifer began a straightforward treatment of “Everyday America,” but she was soon inserting snippets of “F**k You,” “Baby One More Time” and “9 to 5,” before returning to the original lyrics.
Her rendition of the plaintive ballad “Stay” earned the most intense crowd response. Without being invited to, the people sang along with her on every word.
Nettles also stretched “Find the Beat” into lyrical side trips to “Sweet Caroline” and “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” and ended the set with the anthemic “Something More.”
Of course, the crowd called them back.
As the band reassembled and started the next song, Nettles spread a large white cloth against the backdrop and, in broad strokes and capital letters, wrote the word “LOVE,” inscribing a peace sign inside the “O.”
She passed the sign down from the stage to a girl who marched it triumphantly through the crowd as Nettles and Bush sang the rousing “Stand Up.”
Little Big Town returned to the stage to join Sugarland for the over-the-top finale, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”
Sweet though their harmonies were, Little Big Town pumped out a tidal wave of sound throughout its set, beginning with a full-throated cover of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade.” It clearly was not an evening for country traditionalists.
About as country as the show got was when LBT sang “Little White Church” while standing against a backdrop showing a gigantic black and white photo of a small rural church.
The group’s segment was long enough for it to cover its major hits as well as display its emotional range on a spectrum that ranged from the soothing “A Little More You” and “Bring It on Home to Me” to the high-spirited “All the Way Down” to the doleful “Shut Up Train” to the swampy “Boondocks,” which closed the set.
This plucky quartet has survived intact the expulsion from one label and the collapse of another. In the process, it has developed a rich, distinct sound and staked out a cultural territory that lies somewhere between the fringes of smooth pop and Southern gothic.
Nathanson’s opening spot lasted just 20 minutes. But in that time, the veteran folk-rocker connected solidly with the crowd. “We’re here to lull you into madness,” he joked. He assured the crowd he trusted it enough to open with his newly written song, “Room at the End of the World.” And that he did.
He also performed “Come On Get Higher,” which Sugarland covered on the deluxe edition of its Love on the Inside CD. Nathanson bowed out by leading the crowd in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”View photos from Sugarland’s Nashville concert.