Lay those new songs bare onstage with a new group of musicians playing them and the vulnerability quotient is exponentially magnified.
Jennifer Nettles’ task Tuesday night at the Florida Theatre – a homecoming of sorts for the Douglas native who now lives in Nashville – was to make the songs on her gratifying solo debut, “That Girl,” as attractive to her longtime fans as the vast catalog of Sugarland hits that made her famous.
And no doubt, Nettles is a star. She’s got the casual-country-but-coolly-stylish look, the booming voice with a piercing twang and the “I see you, girlfriend!” type of personality that immediately connects her with fans.
Nettles taps into a deeper fan base, a predominantly female one that hangs on her every syllable, swoons when she breaks into a melancholy ballad such as “Falling” and shrugs their shoulders in rhythm to the easy groove of “Jealousy”. You can tell she adores her fans, even stopping between songs to take hold of a flower a cowboy from four row back wanted to give her, and thanking crowd for ” letting her do what she love every night” entertaining and singing to crowds like them.
At Tuesday’s show – Nettles kept the focus on her voice and the soul-pop songs on “That Girl,” kicking off the 90-minute concert with the appealingly relaxed title track.
Everything about her solo show contained an element of softness, from the lighting, which shaded the stage in “Wicked” green during “Money ball,” to the satiny lilt of another well-chosen cover, Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me,” .
Many of Nettles’ new songs reside in mid-tempo land, so a portion of the concert, including the sweet love songs, “This One’s for You,” on which Nettles played piano, the lovely “This Angel,” which featured her upper register, and “Good Time to Cry,” a song reminiscent of both the Eagles and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, felt sluggishly paced.
Of course, at the first notes of any Sugarland song, whether it was “Baby Girl” early in the show or “All I Want to Do” later, the adoring crowd leapt to its feet to sing along, sparking some energy in the room.
Nettles surprised with an innovative rendition of Imagine Dragons’ “Demons.” With her band– huddled at the front of the stage and gathered around a mic, Nettles performed the song Mumford & Sons style, infusing it with a folk flair.
There was nothing but unfettered joy filtering through the Florida Theatre by the time Nettles got to perhaps the best song on “That Girl,” the rollicking “Know You Wanna Know,” which perfectly showcases her sassy sense of humor. The song also allowed her to shimmy her hips and continue beaming at the fans, her job of asking them to accept her new material a success.
Opening for Nettles was the ever-impressive Brandy Clark.
An ace songwriter who, with the help of fellow scribe-now-in-the-spotlight Kacey Musgraves, penned Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” (and Musgraves’ inspiring “Follow Your Arrow”), Clark is a gem.
Armed with only an acoustic guitar, a heady twang and a lot of down-to-earth banter, Clark had the attentive crowd hooting and hollering when she introduced “Get High” (about exactly what it sounds like) and singing along to “Mama’s.”
Her warm, earthy voice and knack for storytelling fared strongest on “Better Dig Two,” the outstanding country hit she co-wrote for The Band Perry.
She might not have Nettles’ public prominence, but even among the plethora of Music Row talent, Clark excels.