Story and photos by Ellen Barnes
Sugarland rocked the house at the jam-packed Philips Arena in Atlanta on Saturday, Oct. 22, reinforcing their reputation as energetic, dynamic and passionate performers. Being the last stop on the band’s Incredible Machine Tour, and the hometown of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, the city has a soft spot in the band’s heart. “Let’s get it going, Hotlanta,” yelled Nettles after opening with “All We Are” from the newest album, The Incredible Machine.
Nettles and Bush dominated a very large stage set with special effects focusing on multi-colored lights throughout the performance. The stage backdrop was a hybrid of artwork from the group’s two most recent albums, combining the well-known winged heart from Love on the Inside, with the engine and machine-inspired Steampunk vibe of their latest project.
Nettles shined in a simple yet true-to-character all-black outfit, accented by a sheer sparkly vest and bold necklace.
The duo made a fine display of their newest album, playing hits such as “Tonight,” “Stuck Like Glue,” and “Incredible Machine,” during which Bush rocked a near-minute-long solo on his sizzling red electric guitar.
The band made sure to intertwine older hits along with new material, not forgetting favorites such as “Baby Girl” and “Something More,” from first album, Twice the Speed of Life. Before playing “Something More,” Nettles proclaimed to the audience, “People tell us we’re so lucky to be able to go on the road and play our own music for a living. I look at all your smilin’ homecoming faces and I say you’re damn right.”
Other hits included “Settlin’,” a harmonized rendition of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” and a heartfelt “Stay,” during which Nettles’s face was tear-streaked, reminiscent of the song’s music video. Her emotion was contagious, causing the audience to sway while sentimentally singing along. It is clear why Nettles is beloved by fans for her sense of realness and humanity, especially while performing.
The group spiced up the performance by sprinkling in snippets of cover songs, including a rock version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” into “Find the Beat.” There was a unique take on “Everyday America,” with Nettles splicing in Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” and Detiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious.” Adding to the entertainment was four men dressed as each of these artists and dancing onstage with the band.
Opening act Sara Bareilles returned to the stage dressed like Bush, amusing the crowd with her imitation. Other pranks included popcorn raining down on the keyboardist as Nettles introduced him—Nettles laughed, declaring, “This show will go down in infamy.”
Sugarland’s energy radiated throughout the entire show, with Bush constantly running and skipping back and forth to opposite ends of the stage, and even sitting down on speakers inches away from the audience. Nettles and Bush make a dynamic performing duo, sharing a charming live chemistry whether dancing, playfully fighting or laughing at one another.
Among the evening’s highlights was the band’s emphasis on audience interaction. After playing “Baby Girl,” Nettles asked, “Do you like surprises? ‘Cause it’s a good one.” Bush added, “Somebody needs a new guitar,” causing uproar in the stands. Bush hopped off stage and walked through the audience while holding one of his acoustic guitars high above his head. The lucky recipient was a young boy near the back who was wide-eyed with shock and gratitude.
Another special moment was during the song “Little Miss.” Prior to the concert each audience member was given a sign reading the lyrics “I’ll be alright again, I’m ok” to hold up during the song as part of the “Little Miss Project.” Later, while Nettles was singing, the lights shown on the crowd and thousands of the signs were displayed in the air. Nettles was truly touched, calling it a “wonderful surprise.”
For the encore, fans watched as Nettles spray-painted “LOVE” onto a flag and then passed it around the audience while she and Bush sang “Stand Up.” Many people were waving their own smaller “LOVE” flags as well. The group ended with their rendition of Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen,” with Bareilles returning to the stage. It was a fitting close, representing Sugarland’s embrace of musical diversity, talent and fan love.