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Concert review: Sugarland in New York City

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Sugarland_l

Sugarland_lI know I’ve been absent from the blog of late, PopWatchers, and for that I’m really sorry — but I need a vacation from time to time, or I run the risk of posting really long crabby rants about how all the tracks at the top of the “hot digital songs” chart seem like torture devices specifically intended to make me puncture my own eardrums with rusty screwdrivers. But what’s so funny is right before I decided to make that remark about the “hot digital songs,” I actually went and read the latest chart, and whaddaya know: down there at number 16 is a little ditty called “Stay,” courtesy of your reigning CMA Vocal Duo of the Year, Sugarland…the very reason I came here to post today! It’s like a between-major-holidays miracle, and a clear sign I shouldn’t be neglecting my duties out there in blogland.

Anyway. Sugarland! I’ve seen them a couple times already this year, but that didn’t stop me from swinging by the Nokia Theater in Times Square last night to see them headline an evening with Jake “Yee-Haw” Owen and Little Big Town — whose new album, A Place to Land, is truly excellent and I kept meaning to tell you people to go buy it but then I went on vacation and kinda forgot, but since it just came out last week it’s not too late for you to do yourselves a solid and pick that sucker up.

As usual, my girl J.Net (pictured…and what? Slezak gets to make up nicknames!) and her charming sidekick Kristian put on a killer show — made, I think, all the better by the absence of the big-arena-show bells and whistles I’ve seen mentioned in reviews from other cities. Last night, in the weird but mostly cozy confines of the Nokia (place used to be a movie theater, and it shows), there were confetti cannons but no video screens or inspirational projections, something for which I am thankful. After all, we saw what happened last time I got hit with the full country spectacle– and frankly, I can’t imagine this band needing all that junk in the first place. The combination of their music and their personalities really is enough. They’re the Junior Mints of headlining acts: very refreshing!

In fact, I am such a Sugarland supporter that I took a big risk and invited my friend Kristin — the biggest Yankee I know — to be my plus-one. (I dragged her to see Shooter Jennings a couple weeks ago and she made it through that whole event without stabbing me with a picture of Abraham Lincoln or anything, so I figured she’d be up for this.) Wonder of wonders, she liked the show so much she asked if she could write a review. After the jump, her thoughts, followed by a couple from me.

I am not a country music fan. I enjoy some Dolly Parton because that lady can write and sing a song, and I knew all the words to the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” when I was little. But you would have to be a huge jerk to not fall in love with Sugarland. They start the show with the tease of pop music; fans knew they were soon to start when Kanye started jamming on the system. I was out getting beverages during the big “ta da!” (Eight bucks for a vodka soda!), but there is no mistaking the appeal of Jennifer Nettles: Not only can the woman sing, but she actually does. She belts, in fact. As a newbie to country it’s kind of wonderful to hear a talented, heartfelt singer use her voice as her instrument to engage with her audience — instead of relying on her clothes, image, canned dance moves, or just showing up.Then, holy s—. Nettles invited the band downstage. “We’re going to play a classic country song,” she claimed. “To the left, to the left,” they began. That’s right, they were covering Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable.” If the measure of a great cover song is its ability to change and reshape how the listener feels about the original, then this was a success. They gave it a twangy edge, complete with stand up bass and accordion (why don’t more bands have accordion players?), and everything benefited from Nettles’ clear-headed country approach: you could understand the now non-mumbled lyrics and they’re pretty awesome.I got suckered into “Baby Girl,” because it works as both a well-crafted pop song and has that legendary country narrative that is hard to resist; the same with “Something More.” Sugarland manages to make country music fun and quirky while staying true to their southern roots — and they look like they’re having a great time while they’re doing it. They wave at fans like they were expecting to see them personally. It’s an earnestness I’m not used to.For an encore, they played fan favorite “Stay,” which got me again, both with the lilting power of Nettles’ voice and a finely-crafted narrative. This born and bred Philadelphia Yankee even clutched her chest. When it was over, they called openers Little Big Town and Jake Owen to join them onstage, and played “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Like every great live band, Sugarland knew how to end a show. And it was frickin’ awesome. Y’all. — Kristin McGonigle

As for me, PopWatchers, I’ll confess part of the reason I let K-Money take the lead there is because I was a little afraid my review of the show would wind up focusing too heavily on the very drunk, incredibly disrespectful, and shockingly clichéd people surrounding my little patch of floor — girls sloshing me with Red Bull, boys having loud conversations during the ballads, everyone taking a lot of flash photos of themselves with their backs turned to the stage.

So god bless Sugarland for being endearing enough to hold my attention amidst the frat party swirling around me. It wasn’t a particularly unexpected set — I get the idea it’s the same one they’re doing every night, or close enough, and even some of Nettles and Bush’s physical interactions were familiar from past shows. They also opened with a rather silly sound montage of songs with the word “Yeah” in them (Beatles, Usher). But “Want To” and “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” were appropriately poignant, “Everyday America” and “One Blue Sky” are much stronger live than on record (love the J.Net harmonica solos), and the place exploded for “Baby Girl” and “Something More” — thanks in part to the confetti cannons, of course. Come encore time, as I tried really hard not to sob my way through “Stay,” I noticed that the party people had finally fallen silent, except for a couple girls sweetly and quietly singing along. The spell Nettles weaves with that song is strong, PopWatchers, and is a gift not to be taken lightly. 

Yeah, so I’m with Kristin on how great it is to be drawn in by someone’s musical talent, and how rare that’s becoming these days (see above: digital torture devices). Thus, it doesn’t surprise me that country music continues to grow as a genre for exactly that reason (see above: Philly native plans to buy Sugarland CDs for her sister now). And considering the truly epic number of live shows I’ve been to this year, I feel confident in saying it’s also rare to see all three acts on the night’s bill remain onstage after the last encore — which was indeed “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” a song that, for the record, I was performing acoustic all the way back in 2003 — and sign autographs for the fans on the floor. I didn’t think it was possible for me to have more affection in my heart for the Sugarlanders, but sure enough, as their band pounded through “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” there were J.Net and K.Bush (and Little Big Town and Jake Owen) signing whatever was handed to them. Even if the gesture is staged within an inch of its life (and I can’t figure out the symbolism behind playing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” right then), how can you not feel good about the effort they’re putting into connecting with their fans?

ANYHOO. Hi! Please use the comment space to say really awesome things about Sugarland so my bosses will let me write a feature on them when their next album comes out. Ooh! Speaking of! They played a new song last night, a pretty number called something like “One You Wish For,” and I’m hoping that means these rumors of a split and a Nettles solo career are being put to bed once and for all. We’re cool with that, right?