In the eight years since Sugarland’s first hit (“Baby Girl”), Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have toured small, toured big, toured snazzy production style (“The Incredible Machine”) and now, they’re just touring as themselves.
The “In Your Hands” jaunt has been on the road for a few months, and will soon wrap so that Nettles can concentrate on her impending motherhood (she’s due in November).
But for what is likely the last Sugarland road trip for a year or so, the duo with deep Georgia ties is keeping it simple and casual, with the focus lasered on their four-album catalog with a few fun detours along the way.
At Thursday’s almost completely full show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park – admirable considering Sugarland nearly sold out Philips Arena last October – Nettles and Bush kicked off the night as they should, with just the two of them on stage for “Wide Open.”
Nettles, clad in a bright tank top and maternity jeans that she showed off later in the show, looked casual and natural, and as their five-piece backing band kicked into “Stuck Like Glue” with an added N’Awlins-style bounce, she bopped around with some light dancing, her polarizing twang in full effect.
Though Nettles is understandably not going to be hanging from the rafters anytime soon, Bush maintained the energy quotient during the 100-minute show, buzzing around the stage and even cruising into the crowd to give away a signed acoustic guitar to a random fan.
Sugarland and country radio still love each other with much loyalty, but there is plenty of mainstream crossover action among the band’s fans. You’re as likely to see a Hawaiian shirt or Yankees cap as you are cowboy hats and boots, owing much to the poppy nature of many of the duo’s songs – the relatable “It Happens” and the power ballad “Tonight” prime examples.
A side note, the tour is dubbed “In Your Hands” because Sugarland is allowing fans to choose a portion of the set list.
Nettles and Bush combed through “a bumper crop of signs,” many of them elaborately decorated with pleas for a certain song, first landing on “Blood on Snow,” a song Nettles said she had hoped would have been used in the first “Twilight” movie.
The two fans who requested “Mean Girls” were brought on stage to sing the driving country rocker (and based on their quite good rendition, there had apparently been a lot of practicing in front of mirrors), and Nettles pulled out her lyric sheet for the lovely ballad, “Fall Into Me.”
Since this was a hometown show, some kind of surprise was expected – and delivered. Nettles called out her former “Duets” partner – from her hometown of Douglas, Ga. – John Glosson to reprise their spirited take on Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.” Glosson possesses a gorgeous voice, which was on better display during the pleading Sugarland ballad, “Stay.”
Throughout the show, the cute camaraderie between Nettles and Bush was always apparent, but it blasted off the stage during “All I Want to Do.” Mid-song, Nettles spotted a fan’s sign requesting “Ice Ice Baby” and the singer gamely complied, even adding the Cabbage Patch and other ‘80s dance moves to her rendition.
By the time the singalong to “Find the Beat Again” arrived, there might have been the underlying sense that this was goodbye for now. But Sugarland fans shouldn’t fret too much – the duo will be back in Atlanta in October to accept their induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Opening the show was Dave Stewart, better known as the male half of Eurythmics.
Decked out in a mustard suit bedecked with blackbirds (his last album is called “The Blackbird Diaries” and his next, out Sept. 4, is “The Ringmaster General”), a smear of white face powder and a natty top hat, Stewart churned through his rootsy solo work and a few Eurythmics classics in his 45-minute set.
Stewart’s ace five-piece band included Orianthi on guitar (her musical talents dig far deeper than displayed on her enjoyable pop hit, “According to You”), Dana Glover on vocals and keyboards and Ann Marie Calhoun on violin – a welcome touch on those Eurthymics songs.
The group dazzled with “So Long Ago,” a song filled with Memphis soul-styled backing vocals and keys and stomped through the bluesy “Beast Called Fame.”
Stewart’s voice isn’t particularly distinctive, but he gets the job done well, demonstrated on the acoustic “Magic in the Blues,” a song clearly influenced by Bob Dyan.
Though a few technical glitches added headaches to the set – a non-working guitar, Glover’s mic turned too low – it was still disappointing that the crowd didn’t seem to appreciate his efforts.
Even when the band broke into Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which the multi-faceted Stewart co-wrote, and familiar-with-a- twist versions of “Here Comes the Rain Again” and “Sweet Dreams,” not many seemed interested.
But even the most apathetic listeners had to be impressed with the performance of Kaya Stewart, his 12-year-old daughter who absolutely slayed “Missionary Man.”
Stewart noted at song’s end that it was the first time Kaya had sung on stage with her father – amazing, considering her poise and knockout pipes.
Annie Lennox would be proud.
(Check out our gallery for more photos from Thursday’s show.)