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Review: Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles goes solo, gets soulful at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

28

February

In another era, Jennifer Nettles could have been a pop star.

Sure, she’s kind of a pop star now, singing in one of the biggest country bands around, Sugarland. But send her new solo album, That Girl, back in time to 1997 or 1973, and watch it blow people’s minds.

Produced by Rick Rubin, the soulful, stripped-down album forced Nettles to rein in and refine her brassy, belt-it-out voice, and the result is a record that stacks up against any released by (take your pick) Carole King, Carly Simon, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin or any other member of the Lilith Generation.

The sold-out crowd of 2,003 at Nettles’ concert Thursday at Ruth Eckerd Hall would not disagree. In a venue far more intimate than those she’s used to, Nettles pleased fans both old and new, delivering reimagined Sugarland favorites and showcasing the softer and more sensual side we see on That Girl, revealing the true range and power of her magnificent South Georgia warble.

Performing at the center of an elaborate boho-chic set that looked straight out of VH1 Storytellers, Nettles, 39, spoke about how That Girl was inspired by the AM radio of the ‘70s, and sure enough, she rolled out faithful yacht-rock covers of Ambrosia’s Biggest Part of Me and Barry Manilow’s Weekend in New England. “You can laugh if you want to, but I know it got more of you laid than you care to remember,” she said.

Performing pop covers is nothing new for Nettles, who has shared stages with the likes of Beyonce and Bon Jovi. Her gospel rendition of Bob Seger’s Like a Rock owed much to Carole King’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. And her take on – seriously – Imagine DragonsDemons could not have been warmer or more brilliantly harmonized by her four-piece backing band.

Fans cheered each time Nettles dipped into the Sugarland catalog, but without Kristian Bush by her side, she was free to revamp each one in a manner akin to That Girl. Baby Girl got a lighter, brighter and poppier facelift; All I Wanna Do was a breeze of funky mom-rock; Something More and Stay were stripped to their simple, soulful core and delivered as simple folk ballads.

Between all the new arrangements and pop covers, a theme emerged: This was not a country concert. You’d have felt that way even if Nettles only sang songs from That Girl – the gypsy-calypso title track; the chipper coffeehouse bossa nova of Jealousy; the transfixing heartbeat and snare rolls of His Hands, performed as a face-to-face, heart-to-heart duet with opening act Brandy Clark (more on her in a minute). Apart from the occasional foray into juke-joint boogie (Know You Wanna Know), the closest Nettles got to pure modern country was This Angel, a tear-jerking ballad about her newborn son. But even then, as the song swelled and tugged at the heartstrings, Nettles’ voice rose to a mighty wail – think Heart’s Ann Wilson – and many in the crowd soon rose to their feet.

As big as Sugarland may be, this world Nettles has moved into – a little bit country, but a lot more pop and soul – can open even more doors and win over even more fans, as long as they decide they want to hear it. That Girl may have been a mind-blower in 1997 or 1973. But it’s worth a listen in 2014, too.

Nettles made one other brilliant move on this tour, and that was bringing as her opener budding singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, whose stunning debut album 12 Stories – not to mention her work on hits like Miranda Lambert’s Mama’s Broken Heart and the Band Perry’s Better Dig Two – have inspired waves of critical adulation (“Can Brandy Clark save country music?” asked one typically rapturous headline). The 35-year-old Washington native sings about praying for Jesus and playing the lotto, smoking a little smoke and getting a little crazy. But her forte is rueful story-songs about women done wrong that are knife-twistingly clever.

Flashing flinty sideways glances, Clark delivered eight solo songs, including those Lambert and Band Perry hits, twin careening carousels of barely-hinged behavior. And there are her own songs from 12 Stories, like the wild-eyed folk ditty Crazy Women and her breakthrough single Stripes, one of the flat-out funniest revenge songs in years: “I got a pistol and I got a bullet / and a pissed-off finger just itching to pull it … The only thing saving your life / is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.” Eat your heart out, Brad Paisley.

“Maybe people like killing songs more than they like love songs,” Clark said. “Maybe I need to write more of them."

Yes, please.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 1:14pm]

    

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