By the time the popular country band Sugarland stepped on the Les Schwab Amphitheater stage last week to kick off the venue’s 2009 Bend Summer Concerts series, it was more than two months later than the first show of the 2008 series, and about a month later than the beginning of the 2007 series.
So perhaps the late start created anticipation for a lazy evening on the lawn, contributing to the large crowd there to see Sugarland. About 4,850 people showed up on a hot, then rainy, then gorgeous Thursday night, more than were at any of the Schwab’s shows last year.
In fact, Sugarland drew the second-biggest crowd since the beginning of the 2007 series, behind only Willie Nelson’s 5,600. And it just nosed out the third-biggest crowd over the last two years, Brooks & Dunn with about 4,830.
Of course, there’s an obvious common thread here. Sugarland is a big, fancy country band. Brooks & Dunn is a big, fancy country band. And Willie Nelson — despite his late-era popularity with just about all kinds of music fans — is one of the best-known country artists of all time.
It’s easy for me to get caught up in the chatter among my friends here in town, and my friends are the kind of folks who want more Modest Mouse, Beck and Wilco, and less Sugarland, Brooks & Dunn and Lyle Lovett (who played Sunday at the amphitheater). They’re disappointed with this year’s lineup (Ween notwithstanding) and, I admit, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that their opinion represents a larger feeling across the region.
But that’s just not true, and the numbers prove it. Central Oregon loves its country music, and furthermore, Central Oregonians will drop $40 to $80 apiece to see country’s big stars play here.
After Thursday’s concert, it’s not hard to see why. In the late 2000s, country is what rock was in the 1970s: Big, extravagant shows and relentlessly cheesy/hooky songs that appeal to our brain’s basic pleasure sensors.
Sugarland is huge because it does both of those things very well. The showmanship component can be summed up in two words: Jennifer Nettles.
She’s not only the band’s lead singer and sometimes songwriter, but she’s a one-woman charm-fest, expertly playing up a fast-talkin’, Southern-gal persona that’s as sweet as the tea in her hometown of Atlanta. Nettles spends entire Sugarland shows smiling, prancing about the stage, interacting with an audience that’s dozens of feet and at least a few bouncers away. No doubt, though, they feel like she’s their best friend.
And then there’s her powerful voice. No wonder she’s had to cancel some shows for doctor-ordered vocal rest. She’s a busy lady on stage, and her importance to Sugarland’s success stretches far beyond her singing ability.
In Bend, Nettles showed no ill effects from her recent vocal problems, powering through huge chorus after huge chorus. The band kicked off the show with “Love” — a song I think has tremendous crossover potential on the pop charts — with its leader reaching to the sky over and over again. It was obvious she’d done these moves in every other city, but I didn’t care.
Nettles mugged her way through “It Happens,” adding the “sh” sound to the beginning of the chorus through a sly smile. She pulled back a bit and poured on the emotion for “Stay,” her Grammy-winning cheater’s tale that was set against a stunning sunset over the Cascades. And she showed off retro dance moves to appeal to everyman and everywoman during “Everyday America.”
The images of Bend splashed across the giant video screen didn’t hurt her cause. Cheers went up for Mount Bachelor, Drake Park, a couple high schools, river floaters, several downtown bars, and so on. Again, it was very calculated, but fun.
Also fun was the gather-round-the-mic treatment the band gave “Genevieve,” a faux-old-time singalong. As the band played, we got a chance to watch their facial expressions (again, smiles) on the big screen. I couldn’t help but notice the eye contact happening between Nettles and the band’s other principal, Kristian Bush, as if, for just three minutes, they were back in some dark bar in Atlanta.
They weren’t, of course, and a big concert in a big outdoor shed requires a big show, so the band also sprinkled its set with covers of hits by R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Nelly, Bon Jovi (a song Nettles recorded with the band) and the B-52s (complete with disco wigs). Some worked, some didn’t; I thought the B-52s song (“Love Shack”) was silly, but the Pearl Jam one (“Better Man”) came off very well. Sadly, many in the crowd — I’ve never seen so many sundress/big sunglasses/cowboy boot combos, by the way — took these tunes as opportunities to chat with friends or buy more beer.
No matter how many times Sugarland strayed from its own hit parade and lost the crowd, however, Nettles could swoop back in and grab them again. She had us — yes, us — in the palm of her hand. The only misstep, I thought, came in the encore, when Sugarland did the B-52s song plus a new song, “So Long,” that had a horn-fueled rock ‘n’ soul vibe. I didn’t love either.
But by then, the fun had been had. The crowd had been wowed. And Sugarland, after canceling an appearance here two years ago, had made a triumphant debut in Central Oregon, where country is king.