Sugarland: The Sound of Love
Rockford, IL –MetroCentre
August 12, 2011
By Anthony Kuzminski
Published in conjunction with antiMUSIC
Writer’s note: As I write this, the members Sugarland are grappling with a tragedy I can’t even imagine. One thing I know is that the events of Saturday night won’t leave their memory bank any time soon. In an ironic twist of fate, I had seen the band the night before in Rockford, IL and had written my review when I received news of what happened. It forced me to modify it slightly, but at its core, the review you will read below is virtually untouched from the original except the final paragraph.
Watching a Sugarland concert reminds me of the old school rock n’ roll arena tours of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Their current tour consists of a sprawling stage with ninety high octane minutes fueled by a bevy of hits and the strongest album of their career. Inside the cozy confines of Rockford’s MetroCentre the band played a rousing and unrelenting set Friday night. Watching Sugarland it was reminiscent of the rock shows I saw growing up. There was a deep sense of community between the band and the fan. That has been lost in recent years but is on full display at country shows I have seen as of late. Sugarland was no different. Before “Everyday America”, both Nettles and Bush signed an acoustic guitar that the latter took deep into the crowd and gave away to a fan. Witnessing acts of kindness like these make you believe that the world is filled with just enough people to make a difference in the world we live in.
“All We Are” commenced the show with a celebratory strut. With the band hidden behind a drape, it dropped to reveal singer Jennifer Nettles and co-founder Kristian Bush. Nettles, in a black outfit and white hat, strutted across the stage in a triumphant manner. Her performance wasn’t cold or calculated but something that sways a non-believer out of their seat. Guitarist Kristian Bush was right alongside Nettles the whole night performing a range of guitars with an invigorating style. His focus is on the rhythm guitar, pinching his fret board with not just resilience but compelling thrusts. He rarely had a solo that stole the show but his determination fueled the spectacular backing band behind them. By the evening’s second song, the captivating “Stuck Like Glue”, their on-stage chemistry was in full force. On “Settlin’” from Enjoy the Ride the mixture of Nettles and Bush’s melding voice tell more than a story but reinforced the themes of self empowerment. Witnessing moments like these in concert are almost enough to lift you from a dreary existence and provide the much needed jolt for a turning point. Their recordings are slick and well produced but seeing them employ the crowd is a wonder. I was struck by four girls in the last row of the arena all the way up who I could see dancing and singing in tandem to every song. It’s a memory I am sure that won’t leave them any time soon.
“Tonight”, the current single, soared with Nettles vocals proving to be downright radiant. When she hits those high notes on the chorus she was in a blissful and magical state. The song shifts from understated beauty to furious passion. Matching Nettles belting vocals was the band who built the song slowly before a combustive finish. Hearing this song sent me to The Incredible Machine a few months ago and it hasn’t left any playlist since. The song steals a piece of your heart but seeing it live; you couldn’t help but be swept up in the sentiment of Nettles performance. Its one thing to make someone ache and lust for you and it’s another to make them fall in love with you. Nettles doesn’t merely sing but find a way to express not just her emotions but in a compassionate way that every audience members feels like she’s singing for them. We live in a world where niche driven markets drive music, and yet Sugarland performed a full show of anthems that soared not just inside the arena walls but in the hearts of the audience as well. We all look upon success with disdain, but in truth, we yearn for something that makes us all feel like we belong. Five songs into the show in Rockford, I along with 10,000 others felt like we were experiencing something extraordinary.
“Every Girl Like Me” was driven by the rhythm guitar of Kristian Busch. Throughout the whole evening, he covered the entire stage, interacting with the audience all the while never missing a note. His guitar embellished the ghostly atmosphere of “Stay”. The song, written by Nettles, turns tables on what we know about a love song. Taken from the point of view from a woman in the midst of an affair with a married man, the song is a triumph of songwriting and their biggest hit. There were the earlier hits, each contagious and memorable framed by melodies and poignant lyrics that wrap themselves around you; “All I Want To Do”, “Baby Girl” and “Something More”. There were some perfectly chosen and well placed covers within the show. “Everyday America” featured “Forget You / Baby One More Time / 9 To 5 / Bootylicious”. From Cee-Lo Green to Britney Spears to Dolly Parton to Beyonce, they made each song their own. They once again, came off as fans breaking bread with the audience. “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” threw Nettles into the spotlight in 2006 and helped Bon Jovi become the first rock band to ever attain a number-one single on the country charts. Sugarland’s version was ever bit as good and proved to be more playful. “Sweet Caroline” was tagged onto “Find the Beat Again” with great success. The evening’s finale was a cover of Dexys Midnight Runners “Come On Eileen” which had the crowd singing and swaying out into the summer night at the end of their lean 90-minute set.
Sitting next to the stage I watched the seriousness with which Nettles and Bush take their job. They don’t merely perform but leave a piece of themselves on the stage. There’s a profound sense of responsibility to their craft and it’s something they take very seriously. Far too many performers play to the crowd and not with them. Sugarland performs with the audience and doesn’t make them feel inferior but part of their family. As I watched Nettles perform “Little Miss” from The Incredible Machine I couldn’t help but be affected by it. My wife, the best person I have ever met, stood next to me and was lost in the song. The lyric about being broken but not defeated spoke to her. I never appreciated it on record as much as I did seeing it live. It’s a reminder that life takes us down twists and turns that are unexpected but that there is always something to grasp onto, you just have to believe. My wife told me that Nettles reminds her of “Claire” (played by Kristen Dunst) from Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, if she was a country performer. When she belted “I’m OK” it filled the room with her evocations. Seeing this song healed my wife a bit and made her feel that despite the ugliness she has encountered in the world, she’s at a turning point.
I looked into the eyes of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Busch and saw my dreams, my fears and my desires. I didn’t feel like they were telling me a story but we someone whom I was simply sharing my life story with. Artists like these don’t come around often, so when they do, we need to support them. I’m not sure when the next time Sugarland will perform, but what I can tell you is that with all my heart; I know it will be the greatest performance of their career. Their greatness along with their extraordinary anthems won’t be limited to any one show; it will stay with them for the rest of their careers. When crowds hear “Stand Up”, “Tonight”, “Little Miss” and “All We Are” they’ll stand taller, feel more, love more and be more aware than they ever have before and anytime you make people more aware of the beauty life can encapsulate, that’s never a bad thing. Sometimes, we just need a little music to guide us down the path and at this moment in time for me, and I am assuming several others, Sugarland will be the sound of love that surrounds us.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter