MINNEAPOLIS -- Sugarland is now officially a hat act.
Kristian Bush always has covered his head, lately with a natty fedora. But Jennifer Nettles sported a stylish red sequined beret for much of Sugarland's concert Friday night (April 17) here at Target Center. Was it a new look? A new concept? Or just a tip of the hat to Prince's "Raspberry Beret" in his hometown?
Certainly, the pop-savvy Sugarland nodded to many other non-country acts in its 95-minute set, covering songs by the B-52's, Madonna, R.E.M. and Kings of Leon, Nettles' favorite rock band of late. The Georgia duo also borrowed a few stage tricks from the pop world -- waving glowsticks ('N Sync), blowing bubbles (Lady GaGa), dancing with umbrellas (Rihanna) and traveling over the crowd inside giant inflatable plastic balls (Flaming Lips). Even Sugarland's opening song -- "Love," from their third CD, Love on the Inside -- soared with all the anthemic rock glory of pop-rock giants U2.
On this second leg of their headline tour to promote Love on the Inside, Sugarland offered six songs from that 2008 CD as well as two new unrecorded numbers, the southern soul-styled "So Long" and the slow, dark rocker "Blood on Snow." Of course, the duo, backed by five musicians, did most of their biggest hits, including the toe-tapping "It Happens," the powerfully emotional "Stay" and "Everyday America," which had a reggae undercurrent before Nettles called audibles for Madonna's "Into the Groove" and "Holiday" followed by the Emotions' "Best of My Love." Hey, where was the mirrored disco ball when Sugarland needed it?
Those flashbacks might have been sparked by Nettles acknowledging a fan's sign inviting Bush to go to her prom.
"How long's it been?" Nettles asked him.
"Five years," Bush joked.
Right. Then Nettles mentioned her own prom memories of Depeche Mode and Rob Bass.
As always, Nettles was next-door-neighbor chatty, slap-a-fan's-hand accessible and just about as wired as a tween girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. She did more mugging for the big-screen video than in the past, and she and Bush did more choreographed dances, often to end a number. But there's no denying that she seems to be genuinely having more fun on an arena stage than just about any other woman in country music. And her sweaty joy was unstoppably infectious.
Before the concert, each of the 8,200 fans was given a free Sugarland glowstick and a bottle of bubbles with a wand. Nettles led the glowstick waving while dancing in the dark to the Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love." She and Bush blew bubbles before lanterns descended from the light rigging for the piano ballad "Night Swimming," an R.E.M. tune. Later, Nettles did a solo dance with the lanterns, touching them one by one at the end of "Already Gone" and triggering them to ascend to the rafters.
Other production touches included lights that simulated snow and a giant semi-circle video screen backdrop, on which popular Minneapolis sites and logos for the Twins, Vikings, Wild and Timberwolves pro sports teams were shown during "Who Says You Can't Go Home," the Nettles/Bon Jovi smash that afforded Bush a rare lead vocal opportunity. And then there was the giant blonde Afro wig Nettles wore for the closing "Love Shack," a bluesy version with some gospelly B-3 organ, which served as a tribute to another band from Georgia, the B-52's.
Not only did Sugarland vary their production values, but they were flexible with their musical combinations, stripping down to a trio for "Blood on Snow" (with Nettles on electric bass, Bush on electric guitar), an acoustic ensemble for the bluegrass-y "Genevieve" (with its echo of "Long Black Veil"), an acoustic duo for the misty-eyed "Stay" and Nettles sitting at an upright piano for a slow-burn treatment of Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire."
By the end of the night, this pop-loving hat act had knocked the socks off of everyone at Target Center.
Opening the show were Billy Currington, whose medium-tempo tunes pleased the crowd, and unadvertised, unsigned, un-country Brandon Young, whose emo choir-boy tenor made it sound as if he were auditioning for a Coldplay tribute band.
Jon Bream has been the music critic of the Minneapolis Star Tribune since 1975.