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Live review: Sugarland at the Greek Theatre

July 9, 2010 |  5:51 pm

SugarAt the encore of the pop-country duo Sugarland’s feisty, endearing set Thursday night at the Greek Theatre, singer Jennifer Nettles unfurled a white flag and spray-painted the word “love” on it, with a peace sign inside the “O.”

Pairing the oldest topic in songwriting with a hokey 40-year-old pop culture image shouldn’t have felt volatile. But coming from a band that tops a country music chart on which acceptable commentary on war is limited to Toby Keith’s visions of putting boots in uncomfortable places (“It’s the American way,” after all), it felt intimate and even a little bit radical.

Sugarland excels at this — sneaking a quietly transformative energy into Nashville pop as sweet as peach pie. Its songs are precision-milled depictions of everyday problems — my job stinks, I’m dead broke and why is that cute guy picking some heartless ice queen over me? But Sugarland’s solutions offer a little more than just consolation — lyrics suggest that something better really is on its way.

Much of this sentiment comes from Nettles’ omnipresent grin. If you ever wonder what became of that girl from school who shotgunned beers faster than any of her legion of boy admirers, an hour with Nettles would stoke those memories. Guitarist Kristian Bush, Sugarland’s musical backbone, plays a genial sideman, and the band’s steampunk-inspired stagecraft added some new visual ambition. But the wattage belongs to Nettles’ frizzy art-teacher haircut, bad jokes and a singing voice so conversational that her way with melody sneaks up on you.

Take the crowd favorite “It Happens.” The song’s an upbeat catalog of workaday slapstick, but when it comes time for the hook of “Pssht, it happens,” the band revels in letting the words run together to sound a little bawdy. While so many country acts feel a need to pick sides between mega-church purity and outlaw banditry, Sugarland loves small indulgences like that — “No amount of beer can stump you guys,” Nettles said, after previewing a few bars of a forthcoming song. “Or pot, from what it smells like up here.”

Previews from the band’s forthcoming record, “The Incredible Machine,” suggested an added dose of earnestness leavened by more eclectic arrangements. The title track almost had a disco feel to it, with a strong four-on-the-floor beat and syncopated bass backing a very straightforward ode to the heart’s resilience. Sugarland’s more of a country act in its subjects than in sound — a late-set covers medley included snippets of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and, in a shout-out to the many families in tow, Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” But the band was most affecting in its turn at tear-stained soul, where the unexpectedly brutal “Stay” transformed a plea for dignity from a lover into a lighters-up moment for all the single ladies without a ring on it.

Perhaps the most telling moment was one with more levity. Toward the set’s close, Bush stopped the song, made his way into the crowd and gave his guitar to a young girl wearing the band’s T-shirt. Sure, the moment was likely scripted, but the ecstatic, stunned smile that wrapped around the girl’s face felt as true as the one onstage. She didn’t know it then, but something good was on its way.

--August Brown

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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