Sugarland duo stands alone and together

by Alison Bonaguro
(Special to the Tribune),
Published February 22, 2007


Sometimes, you just can't hide a twang. You can't bury it beneath the lyrics, and you can't drown it out with the music.

Such was the case with Jennifer Nettles' vocals during Sugarland's show Wednesday night at the Chicago Theatre. And that was a good thing. Because between Nettles' big brassy voice and Kristian Bush's intense mandolin flatpicking, the band's sound stands out in the never-ending supply of Nashville banality.

Proof of their distinctiveness was on display from the opening song, their rousing new single"Settlin'." Other mega-hits, such as the girls-night-out anthem "Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good)" and the bittersweet "Just Might (Make Me Believe)" came on strong during the 90-minute show.

And since Sugarland is the only girl-boy duo in country music right now—think Johnny Cash and June Carter without the flirtatious vibe—everything they did seemed out of the ordinary. So when Nettles was?rhapsodizing about new love, money woes or red wine, the soul in her voice took center stage. At times, their music passed for a crossover sound with some pop-heavy hooks. But the twang-and-mandolin combination was enough to placate country purists.?Hits off their double-platinum "Twice the Speed of Life" album (such as their debut "Baby Girl" and "Something More") were well-received by the capacity crowd, as was "County Line," which Nettles described as "the place you went in high school that you thought the cops didn't know about."

Halfway through the show, when four of the band members came to the front of the stage for a bluegrass cover of Bruce Hornsby's 1986 hit "The Way it Is," Nettles called it a full-frontal assault. Or, as it's known in Nashville, Opry style. Bush's brother Brandon, borrowed from his regular gig with Train, joined the band to play keyboards and a very cool squeezebox throughout the set.

Stunts like that energized the fans, who were on their feet the entire show. It seemed unsophisticated and out of place to be standing at the legendary Chicago Theatre, but Sugarland does that to people. Their songs have been steadily pouring out of country radio for three years. There's no way this crowd was going to take that sitting down.


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