Allentown gets ‘Bigger’ with Sugarland

The country music duo performed in PA on one of their last remaining summer tour stops

Allentown turned into Sugarland last night (Fri, Aug 31st) when Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush took the stage on their triumphant “Still the Same Tour.”

Sugarland presented a paired-down version of their circus-themed presentation at the Great Allentown Fair Grandstand. Compensating for the outdoor venue, the band forsook the Barnum-esque spectacle of their arena shows. However, that put the focus on the music, and Jennifer Nettles’ amazing voice.

To hear Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush in person is a dream for fans that thought they had disbanded permanently in 2013. After all, deciding to focus on “solo projects” is all too often a euphemism for going separate ways creatively and personally. But, to modify an overused simile, like a fine wine, Sugarland gets better the longer you have to wait for to experience them.

Jennifer Nettles is that rare singer whose voice is actually restrained by the studio. Whereas countless times, artists disappoint in how their vocals translate from ear buds to the live speakers, Nettles proves the opposite. With “Bigger,” the aptly titled opening number allowed Nettles to unleash her pipes. That song, which is the title track off the duo’s return album, is somehow crisper and livelier in concert than its studio counterpart.

It is clear that the stage gives Nettles the freedom to let her vocals take center stage. In some ways, Nettles’ distinctive emotional twang and tongue-in-cheek delivery is the third member to the group; the voice plows through, while Nettles’ strutting and facial expression give a wink to every lyric.

Nettles’ sassiness on “Stuck Like Glue” and “It Happens” reached the tip-top of the Grandstand bleachers, as if she were truly speaking to everyone individually. The earnestness in “Settlin’” and “Little Miss” soared to the sky to meet the low-flying aircraft landing at the nearby LVI airport. While Kristian Bush shined on his solo number — literally, the song he wrote during their time exploring careers as individual artists — “Trailer Hitch.”

Krisitan Bush’s talent does not go without being highlighted or unnoticed by Sugarland fans. His virtuosity on a variety of stringed instruments is impressive, switching between multiple guitars and mandolins throughout the night. And for those that do not know, the best-kept secret of Sugarland is that Bush is the funniest of the two! Between whipping his guitar around while he plays, making bug-eyes at the front row, and teasing the audience that they “thought we were on a vacation for five years,” Bush shines as the backbone to the group’s music and personality. Oh, and he should talk more.

Sugarland’s sound has evolved over their history. Embracing classic country on their first few albums (Enjoy the Ride being my favorite), Bush and Nettles consciously began adopting a pop-infused sound on their final pre-break album, The Incredible Machine. That shift earned the group its biggest radio player, “Stuck Like Glue.” 2018’s Bigger dives deeper—indeed embracing a ‘bigger’ pop sound—with more loops, middle-of-the-road ballads, and even a song by Taylor Swift.

Taken separately, the musical direction of Sugarland can seem devoid of identity. After all, one album speaks to “Everyday America” while another uses a synth to encourage listeners to “Lean it on Back.” But taken as a body of work, the evolution of Sugarland’s sound becomes apparent and, for better or worse, is parallel to the evolution of their country contemporaries. At the very least, such creative diversity makes waiting for the band’s next project all the more exciting. At most, such risk encourages hope for renewed crossover interest in country as acts like Florida Georgia Line wear out their welcome.

All of this to say that during the live show, not a single number felt out of place for the group. When the production of their recorded music gets out of the way, the songs take on a new life. One can only hope this showcase of Sugarland’s newest music will be represented on a live album in the near future.

Throughout the concert, Nettles and Bush made sure their fans knew “Everyone is welcome in Sugarland.” A beautiful sentiment on display during “Little Miss,” showcasing a fan-made video, during which people from all over the country shared their struggles and challenges in life. As well, before a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Tony,” graphics displaying a “Sugarl&” logo appeared on the screen, symbolizing the groups pride in having fans of all creeds. During the aforementioned cover, a PSA on bullying played on-screen via simple white text on a black background. Some would say that’s too heavy-handed for a country concert, but this stand was taken tastefully avoided a preachy tone. Not many who try delivering the same message can do that.

Throughout the concert, Nettles and Bush made sure their fans knew “Everyone is welcome in Sugarland.” A beautiful sentiment on display during “Little Miss,” showcasing a fan-made video, during which people from all over the country shared their struggles and challenges in life. As well, before a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Tony,” graphics displaying a “Sugarl&” logo appeared on the screen, symbolizing the groups pride in having fans of all creeds. During the aforementioned cover, a PSA on bullying played on-screen via simple white text on a black background. Some would say that’s too heavy-handed for a country concert, but this stand was taken tastefully avoided a preachy tone. Not many who try delivering the same message can do that.

It should be noted, as alluded to above, that this version of the show, unlike the one covered earlier this summer, was a more intimate experience than what their arena show can accommodate. The rest of the tour, which wraps up next week, will feature production value that was simply unavailable at an outdoor venue. That said, nothing felt missing from last night’s show.

There are many reason this tour is the must-see concert tour of the summer. For one, it is the reunion of a country music favorite after a five year hiatus that many feared marked the end for the duo. For another, it is just good music. There are few talents as pure and as authentic as that of Bush and Nettles. Their hard work has built a musical world fans clamor to visit. I have a very distinct feeling we’ll all be back in Sugarland very soon.

Author: Matt Bailey

Matt Bailey is podcast producer and writer located in the Northeast. Since 2013, Bailey has produced more than 160 episodes of his own online radio show, Talk For Two. In 2016 alone, he interviewed Kevin Bacon, Crystal Gayle, Bob Barker, and Gilbert Gottfried, among several other stars. As a Correspondent for The Music Universe, his focus is Broadway, country music and concert reviews.

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