Fairplex, Pomona, Calif. (Saturday, Sept. 6)
Country music and fairs go together along with corn dogs, cotton candy and the Ferris wheel, so Sugarland's high-spirited rockin' country was just right for the opening weekend of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.
The duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have become one of country's hottest acts by walking a line between slickly packaged, radio-friendly tunes and songs that think outside that formula box, especially on Sugarland's new, third album "Love on the Inside" (Mercury Nashville). With Bush on harmonies and acoustic guitar or, very often, mandolin, the team's songs are driven by Nettles' smile-with-a-twang gal-next-door vocals.
The slow-burning, U2-inspired "Love" from the new release led off the concert, followed by last year's catchy "Settlin'," a defiant refusal to just take what's been handed to you.
Considering that the country music genre is so hit-driven, the crowd filling the grandstand at the fair's racetrack reacted well to the new material, which comprised half the show.
The hilarious "Steve Earle" -- Nettles' marriage proposal to the Americana music hero -- was followed by the chiming bluegrass-pop of "Genevieve," played intimately in the round. Earle would've approved.
The band's most recent hit "All I Want to Do" was a sly and funky carnal strut that came off as the Scissor Sisters-go-Nashville and had the audience cooing along to the refrain.
Past hits were mixed in, but where the letter-back-home "Baby Girl" tapped into family support, the forced anthem "Everyday America" just trotted out heartland cliches . A rendition of Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home," which had featured Nettles, fared better, with Bush in the Jon Bon Jovi spot as they traded lead vocals.
One of the few ballads, the pleading "Stay," was low-key stunning, just Nettles with Bush strumming guitar, until subtle organ crept in behind them.
The encore, unfortunately, featured a wince-bringer: Def Leppard's '80s hit "Pour Some Sugar on Me," though Nettles saved it somewhat with a sassier and sexier treatment than the dopey original. But Sugarland's smarter than just pulling out an awful rock oldie and instead ought to consider covering, say, the Drive-By Truckers or, hey, how about Steve Earle? Now there's an idea.
Sugarland officially kicks off its fall tour Saturday in Asheville, N.C.
All I Want to Do
Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good)
Who Says You Can't Go Home Anymore
Pour Some Sugar on Me