BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
AUGUSTA - If you were paying attention, you might have caught the sly humor in the song rattling through James Brown Arena moments before Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush emerged together for their first tour in five years.
The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and its hypnotic refrain - “Same as it ever was…” – served as an appropriate appetizer for the duo, who have dubbed their return tour (as well as a song) “Still the Same.”
Since going on hiatus after the grueling road run to support 2010’s “The Incredible Machine” album, Nettles and Bush released solo music , starred on Broadway and in Dolly Parton’s TV movies (her) and wrote musicals and scores (him).
Then, late last year, they tentatively returned to writing with each other and found the chemistry immediate and familiar.
So yes, much is “same as it ever was” for Sugarland, and at their tour kickoff at Augusta’s lovably shabby James Brown Arena on Friday night, they made sure to provide fans with a 90-minute set that stretched back to their first hit, 2004’s “Baby Girl,” and included mega-hits “All I Want to Do,” “Stuck Like Glue” and “Want To.”
But – you knew there was a but – you can’t spend years apart from your longtime musical partner and not come back altered. Fortunately, those changes all benefit the 2018 edition of Sugarland.
Nettles’ acting endeavors have served her well. She moves more fluidly, delivers her vocals with elevated verve and seems more at ease, demonstrated by her goofy-fun pop-and-lock moves during a medley of cover songs including Midnight Star’s “No Parking on the Dance Floor” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”
She also looked fabulous in a series of costumes anchored by a black and white striped leotard – which made her tiny waist almost non-existent – and paid homage to the loose circus theme surrounding Sugarland's upcoming album, “Bigger,” with red ringleader tails and knee-high black boots.
Bush, always a quietly powerful presence onstage, stepped forward more often in his trademark black hat, ripping out a guitar solo steeped in electric fuzz at the end of “The Incredible Machine” and adding shades of vocals to the emotional “Little Miss.”
Together, Nettles and Bush engaged in playful dance steps and many smiles, clearly happy to be in each other’s space again.
But they didn’t ignore their solo efforts, with Bush providing the agreeable “Trailer Hitch” (“All I was trying to do was bring the snaps back to country music,” he said, clicking his thumbs and middle fingers together) and Nettles sharing the sultry ballad, “Unlove You.”
These nods to their time away from each other emphasized just how different their non-Sugarland work is and what a special sound they conjure together.
“Bigger,” the band’s first new album in eight years, arrives June 8, and the crowd was treated to more than half of the 11 songs from the forthcoming release. It’s always a challenge to present material that people haven’t heard yet, but Sugarland has established plenty of goodwill with their fans.
It also helps that, aside from the odd “Bird in a Cage,” all of the new songs unveiled on Friday night soared. The title track – which also opened the show – is a swooping pop-leaning number; “Lean it On Back” features a languid groove befitting its title and was enhanced by Nettles’ trademark long enunciations; and the exuberant “On a Roll” spotlighted a (rather impressive) rap interlude from Nettles.
Joining Sugarland on a stage designed with a large video screen at the back and plenty of arched lights is a five-piece band including Atlantans Scott Patton on lead guitar, Amie Miriello on background vocals, Tim Smith on bass and Bush’s multi-talented brother, Brandon, on keyboards. Rounding out the players is Thad Beatty on rhythm guitar and Travis McNabb on drums.
Together, they offered taut musicianship that tilted heavily toward rock on the crowd-revving “Settlin,” detoured into an intoxicating Latin rhythm for the new “Let Me Remind You” and provided the smooth country-pop tones that color the autobiographical “Still the Same.”
A highlight for longtime fans was the ballad “Stay,” which Nettles and Bush performed reverentially, standing alone onstage in a spotlight with only Brandon Bush’s subtle keyboards adding to the musical conversation.
The band has a long road ahead – this tour runs through September and will visit Infinite Energy Arena on Aug. 3.
But fans can be assured that the rejuvenation of Sugarland is palpable.