LIVE: Sugarland @ the Times Union Center, 6/14/12


Review by Greg Haymes
Photos by Kirsten Ferguson. See more of Kirsten’s photos from this show here.

So where do you find the next generation of up-and-coming country singers? Singing their hearts out for tips in some dingy Nashville roadhouse? No, no, no. Just turn on your television…

Lauren Alaina was the runner-up on the 2011 season of “American Idol,” losing the gold medal and bragging rights to another country singer Scotty McCreery (who will be at SPAC later this month opening for Brad Paisley).

Meanwhile, Canaan Smith rose to a certain level of national name recognition as a contestant on the 2009 season of “The Amazing Race.”

And Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland is currently one of the celebrity judge-singers on the new ABC-TV singing competition, “Duets.”

Last Thursday at the Times Union Center in Albany, I missed Canaan Smith’s opening set due to a ticket snafu at the box office, but Lauren Alaina acquitted herself well with an eight-song set that showcased tunes from her debut album, “Wildflower,” including “Tupelo” (with a nifty a cappella intro), “Like My Mother Does” (a power ballad with the requisite desperate key change), the flirty “Georgia Peaches” and her new single “18 Inches” (penned by another “American Idol” alum, Carrie Underwood). The 17-year-old Alaina also offered a beefy rock cover of Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” and a swamp-soaked rendition of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.”

Of course, Sugarland didn’t invent the contemporary country-pop genre, but judging by their performance, they may very well have perfected it. I have rarely, if ever, seen a band so successfully deliver a big hockey arena concert with such a loose, intimate club-show vibe.

Despite their country radio airplay and the considerable array of cowboy hats that dotted the audience at the TUC, powerhouse vocalist Nettles, her musical partner Kristian Bush (on guitar, mandolin and backing vocals) and their five-piece backing band don’t really play country music at all. Their sound owes more to the early-’80s MTV bands with an arsenal of big, arena-ready pop hooks. And when Nettles slid into some Jamaican toasting during “Stuck Like Glue” or spiked the middle of “All I Want to Do” with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” well, you know damn well that Hank wouldn’t have done it that way.

But Nettles was simply charming and unpretentious throughout the band’s entire 100-minute performance, exuding a girl-next-door attitude spiked with a bit of sass. And there was no denying her soulful, soaring voice on gems like “Joey,” the pleading ballad-turned kiss-off “Stay” and the intimate “Love,” which featured her turn at the piano, as well.

Bush – the John Oates of Sugarland – stepped up to take over some of the lead vocals only on “Run,” and throughout the rest of the show seemed quite content to play second fiddle to Nettles, though it was clear that he had fans of his own in the crowd.

The over-all concept for their current “In Your Hands” tour is that the fans determine the set list, and requests poured in via text, Twitter, Facebook and the old-fashioned way – by holding up signs at the concert. Midway through the show, Bush strolled through the crowd to give away a guitar to a lucky fan, and on the way back to the stage he collected dozens of song-request signs.

Nettles got down on her knees to look them over – often holding them up like show-and-tell-for the whole audience to see – and plucked out such selections as “We Run, “Little Miss,” “Every Girl Like Me” and others. They even brought a WGNA-FM contest winner – Courtney O’Dell of Gloversville – to sing “Baby Girl” with them. And she did a fine job, too.

The whole evening had a distinctly homey feel, and it was clear that Sugarland has a very special connection with their fans. It all could have come off as hokey crowd pandering, but in Nettles’ hands, it semmed genuine, and Sugarland brought a rare, up-close-and-personal touch to the usual arena-rock by-the-numbers format.

Sugarland’s own review of the show

Wide Open
Stuck Like Glue
Everyday America
It Happens
We Run
Little Miss
Every Girl Like Me
Incredible Machine
Baby Girl
All I Want to Do > Ice, Ice Baby
Find the Beat Again
Something More

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