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Jennifer Nettles @ The Riverside Theater

March 14, 2014

Mar. 17, 2014
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jennifer nettles sugarland sara bill riverside theater 2014 milwaukee
Photo Credit: Sara Bill
In the current era of country music radio when so much that passes gatekeepers’ muster is of disputable country origins and content, give Jennifer Nettles credit: She’s transparent about how eclectic she seemingly can’t help but be.

Early on in her Friday night performance at The Riverside Theater, she informed the near-capacity venue that of course there would be country, but also other music that means something to her, including rock, gospel and singer/songwriter. So, her solo work hasn’t changed much from her (former?) day job fronting the act that brought her to national attention, Sugarland, yes?

Not quite. Sugarland have certainly strained commercial country’s bounds since their mid-’90s debut, going so far as to include a reggae breakdown—with questionable patois from Nettles—on one single and remaking The Dream Academy’s wistful ’60s reminiscence, ’80s one-hit wonder “Life in a Northern Town.” But the poppy breadth of her solo material sounds to be coming from a less forced, naturally more personal space.  She actually came to country from a singer/songwriter background in which mode she recorded a few albums; plus, the producer of her latest solo project, Rick Rubin, has a knack for bringing out from his charges more intimate aesthetics than they might achieve with someone else at the studio board. The cumulative effect of Nettles’ current solo stint is her continuation of the kind of country/pop blurring of borders that especially has become female singers since at least the ’70s genre-hopping of Linda Ronstadt, Anne Murray and Olivia-Newton John.

With that in mind, there was manifold significance to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” directly before Nettles bounded onto the stage. Not only has Parton cultivated an impressive curriculum vitae in multiple styles from her country base—the debut single and titular track from Nettles’ current solo album, That Girl, references Jolene as the kind of man-stealing woman the song’s narrator doesn’t want to become. Of added significance, Nettles possesses one of the most Southern-sounding voices among distaff country singers since Parton.

Had “That Girl” been better received by country radio, the evening’s headliner might not have led off with it, but it made for half of an opening diptych of darkness and light, as she followed it up with Sugarland’s optimistic first hit, “Baby Girl.” That signaled to the audience that the night wasn’t going to be exclusively about her solo work, either.

After those two opening numbers, in a manner somewhere between an especially caffeinated carnival barker and really talkative best friend, Nettles dished on her musical influences and song set-ups throughout her 17 songs. She even sprinkled a bit of rock critic jargon into her spiels, prefacing her rendition of Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” as her tribute to yacht rock, adding that listeners who took too many drugs in the ’80s might not recall the previous decade.

If her handlers are taking fan votes for a single that could put her back in her home genre’s good graces, mine would be for “Know You Wanna Know,” a feisty boogie lambasting gossip in its myriad manifestations. Other new tunes of hers trade in fairly typical romantic sentiments, as on “Falling” and “Me Without You,” but more intriguing may be the oddly self-referential inspirational ode “This Angel” and the all-purpose gratitude expressed in “Thank You.” The latter would have made a fine finale were it not for the tradition of the encore. Thus, Nettles ended the night with Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” She not only imbued a spiritual vulnerability to the song its author didn’t quite manage with his original, but she effectively redeemed it from its status as a jingle to sell pick-up trucks.


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