in performance: sugarland

kristian bush and jennifer nettles of sugarland. photo by kate powers.

kristian bush and jennifer nettles of sugarland. photo by kate powers.

Lights. Cameras. Bubbles.

That may not the usual call to arms when the hit country pop duo Sugarland hits the stage. But it certainly seemed the protocol of the moment last night at Rupp Arena.

With a full video crew on hand to film their performance, singer Jennifer Nettles and multi-instrumentalist Kristian Bush upped the already high spirited charm of its radio friendly music. The result was a sharp sounding, sharper looking cosmopolitan country production that was one of the most unashamedly chirpy concerts to roll through Rupp in ages.

But then, with a name like Sugarland, we couldn’t honestly expect something terribly despondent now, could we?

The show’s effervescent mood was established firmly before a single note was played or sung. Upon entrance, the 7,500 patrons were given two participatory tools to assist with evening’s pageantry: a glow stick and a bottle of bubbles. Not just any bubbles, mind you – but “Monster Bubbles.” Said so right on the label.

Then the agility of two boom cameras were tested (one shot high into the furthest recesses of the lower arena; the other sailed within inches of heads on the Rupp floor) while the PA system blasted hits by such country greats as Coldplay, John Mayer and U2. The lights descended, band members came on to open glow-in-the-dark umbrellas from an onstage foot locker (that shot the crowd into glow stick mode) and Nettles and Bush walked unceremoniously to the front of the stage to sing the anthemic Love as lighting effects replicating falling stars were illuminated on a dome shaped backdrop screen.

And that was just the first song.

Nettles and Bush then became silhouettes against a wall of white light for Settlin,’ the sort of life-affirming pop narrative that has become a Sugarland trademark. “I ain’t settlin’ for anything less than everything,” Nettles sang. She seemed to mean it, too.

Nettles is a fireball of a singer full of a tireless tone that wailed easily over Sugarland’s rockier tunes like Steve Earle (a fun, Dixie Chicks-ish novelty that dealt more with getting hitched than with the famed songwriter) but didn’t resort to cheap sentimentalism or coyness when lighter fare such as Want To surfaced.

Though he sang harmony for much of the evening, Bush was most comfortable playing the role of sidekick. During the performance, he nicely accented the occasional roots elements in Sugarland’s music – such as the steel guitar colors he pitted against accordion on We Run or the mandolin dashes that lit up everything from the letter home hit Baby Girl to the duo’s current country radio affirmation Already Gone.

OK, so what about those daggone bubbles?  Well, the instructions were for the crowd to hold off on the Monster Bubbles until it was cued first from the stage. So, after Want To settled down, Nettles, Bush and two bandmates began to, well, blow bubbles. The crowd followed. Ever seen Rupp aglow with 7,000-plus patrons blowing soap bubbles into the air? It’s quite something.

Curiously, the homemade effect wasn’t for a hit. It instead led into Nightswimming, which summoned Nettles’ most reserved and cordial vocal performance of the evening.

“What a great song,” remarked a fan who was seemingly unfamiliar but obviously taken with the tune. Yes, it was. But it wasn’t a Sugarland creation. It was written and recorded over a decade ago by R.E.M., a band that shares Sugarland’s Georgia heritage.

A pop concession? C’mon. In a show where everyone is blowing bubbles before film cameras? In an age where the lines of country and pop are hopelessly and sometimes shamelessly blurred, a respectful nod to R.E.M. was a touch of refreshing humanity.

I’d love to stay and chat some more. But I’ve still got half a bottle of Monster Bubbles left. Night time’s burning, you know.



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