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Concert Review: Sugarland, Pepsi Center, Denver, CO, 7/15/09

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Which of the following don’t seem to go together?
• A. Johnny and June.
• B. Sonny and Cher.
• C. Kristian and Jennifer.

At first glance, the obvious answer is “C,” those first names not as identifiable as two of America’s dream matchups. Unless you’re living in Sugarland, that is.

And while Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles might not rank with the great power couples of all time – Bush is married with two children, for God’s sake – they do belong together – on stage.

Jennifer Nettles The powerhouse country-pop duo that is Sugarland, currently scheduled to be on the road throughout the summer and into October, has the unenviable task of opening 20 or so dates for mega-hunk Keith Urban on the "Escape Together World Tour." A July 15 stop at the Pepsi Center in Denver, a 19,000-plus-seat venue that was nearly sold out for the twin billing, turned out to be one of the city's best concerts so far this summer.

If this is the future of our New Country, get in line now to apply for citizenship. Sugarland, a Grammy-winning act that has sold almost seven million records since signing with Mercury Nashville in 2004, put on a razzle-dazzle show that can (and often does) stand on its own.

Their genre-bending, 15-song set lasted 60-plus minutes and included in-and-out-of-love anthems, tender ballads and country-fried rockers, featuring six selections from their third (and most recent) record, 2008s Love On The Inside. They made sure to include all five of their No. 1 hits ( “Want To,” “Settlin’,” “Stay,” “All I Want To Do” and “It Happens”). With five supporting players on tour (including Bush’s brother Brandon on keyboards and appealing Annie Clements on bass), the sound was stimulating, but not overpowering.

As possibly Urban’s hottest warm-up act ever, Sugarland met the challenge by presenting themselves on a visually stunning stage that included white-light umbrellas (even if it was indoors), cozy lanterns, and crystal-clear video screens that followed every move they made.

Sugarland And move they did. Nettles and Bush took center stage from the opening notes of the hopelessly romantic yet undeniably moving “Love,” but didn’t stay side by side too long. They often went in opposite directions to play to the crowd, Nettles usually going to her right and Bush, with the ever-present fedora and mandolin, to his left. Of course, they’d always meet back in the middle for a choreographed finish every bit as polished as a Las Vegas review.

With a bright, expressive and cherubic face, Nettles looks like actress Kirsten Dunst but sounds like Reba McEntire. The Georgia peach’s voice (when it's working) is unmistakably Suthern, kind sir, along with her expressions (“You’re damn right!”) and a rapid-fire, impossible-to-understand introduction to an inspirational song like “Already Gone.”

Keeping Nettles’ vocal cords in shape has become a problem on occasion, though. Sugarland had to be replaced at the May 7 opening of Urban’s tour after Nettles received doctor’s orders to take vocal rest because of a viral tonsil condition.

Then she and the group missed a massive country show at AT&T Park in San Francisco on Saturday (July 18) and the band’s spot in the lineup for Urban’s date at Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Sunday (July 19) was taken by Lady Antebellum after Nettles reportedly lost her voice in the recording studio. (She addresses the situation in a video at the end of this review.)

No health issues were apparent in Denver, however. With a heart-and-wings tattoo on her right arm and wearing torn blue jeans and nearly knee-high red boots (while later donning a sparkly red beret), the blonde with curls looked every bit like the rock star she is becoming. The only thing lacking is sexual chemistry with her partner, which might be a good thing for Sugarland fans, as long as Nettles doesn’t eventually decide to leave her fellow thirtysomething Georgian behind to pursue a solo career.

While she isn’t the most graceful dancer (Madonna and Britney can breathe easy), Nettles has a charismatic stage presence. She barely has to raise a finger to encourage the audience to sing along to “Joey” and takes charge of the rest of the band huddled in a semicircle around those otherwise useless umbrellas during the splendidly harmonious “Genevieve.” Jennifer Nettles screen Yet, her vulnerable side is on display (especially on the big screens on each side of the stage) as her eyes well up for the emotional “Stay.”

Other pleasant surprises included: Nettles backed by piano on R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming”; a salute to Michael Jackson with a few verses of his “Rock With You” tucked in the dance mix of “Everyday America” (off 2006s Enjoy the Ride); and a video shout-out to Denver on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” with “Wild Thing” power chords and Bush getting a chance to handle the singing chores. The latter, a 2006 hit for Bon Jovi that developed into a country version with Nettles on guest duet vocals, got the biggest response of the night for Sugarland as scenes of the Mile High City and its professional sports teams filled the screen behind the band.

It might be a gimmick, but a brilliant one nonetheless. It undoubtedly works in every city where the backdrop changes but the song remains the same. There are a lot of people and places left to conquer in this New Country.

If you miss a chance to see this feast for the eyes and ears, though, don’t dismay. PBS and GAC have offered repeated showings of Sugarland’s Soundstage appearance. But Live On The Inside, a CD/DVD set to be released Aug. 4 exclusively at Wal-Mart and walmart.com, captures the essence of their tour performance. Filmed at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, highlights of that concert will be shown on ABC in Sugarland’s first network TV special, airing at 8 p.m. EDT on Aug. 3.

Kristian Bush Nettles and Bush (at right) are executive producers of the TV project, adding another title to their growing list. As co-writers of all the tracks from their three albums and co-producers of the past two, they seem joined at the hip. If not physically, at least emotionally and intellectually.

For the rare pair to stay as sweet as Sugarland, that connection might be strong enough to endure.

• To see the performance of “Love” from Sugarland’s Live On the Inside DVD, go to Mercury Nashville’s website.
• Check out more Denver concert photos of Sugarland’s opening and Keith Urban’s headline performance.
• See a video message from Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush:

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  • ashley

    I agree with you, this was a very enjoyable concert. Hope that Jennifer can get her voice back. Sugarland is definitely an act to see. Good review.