It was country music goes to town during Labor Day weekend at the New York State Fair with two headliners who enjoy considerable support from country radio, but whose music has little relationship to country’s historical traditions. Both Lady Antebellum’s contemporary pop and Sugarland’s flashy hick-hop played to big crowds, Sugarland scoring the most fans at the Mohegan Sun Grandstand this year, more than 13,000 on Sept. 3, the day after Lady A drew nearly 10,000.
To be fair, appraisals of both shows were made based upon observation from the uppermost Grandstand seats, as that’s where the Fair chose to place reviewers this year. It made for a great view of the midway and allowed monitoring of the traffic flow on the Camillus Bypass, but made it tricky to hear and see the concerts as well as necessary to offer a thorough review. Spoken words were especially difficult to understand.
The trio of individuals who comprise Lady Antebellum is an interesting mix as the least visible of the three, instrumentalist Dave Haywood, is likely the most talented. But it’s the nature of fans to watch the lead singer and most of the time on Lady A songs, that’s Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott or, quite often, a combination of the two. Haywood provided support on piano and various stringed instruments, scoring several of the evening’s highlights.
On Sept. 2 the trio made what would, in sports terminology, be considered a late rally. They recovered from a string of fairly dull, quite similar songs, with the sentimentality of “Hello World” being a low point, to string together three strong songs down the concert’s home stretch. The kinetic “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and the soulful “I Run to You” set the stage for the group’s career song, “Need You Now.” The emphatic sense of urgency in the lyrics and a lovely melody make that a truly special song, but one that may have been better if sung by one voice, instead of sharing the lead. In this case Scott captures the vulnerability of the character beautifully.
Still, while Scott harmonizes well with Kelley’s slightly smoky voice, she’s not exactly a vocal powerhouse. This was never more evident than when she sang a number she had co-written that was released quite successfully by Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger.” It’s a fine song, so kudos to Hillary for her composing skill, but with every note she sang, it became more apparent that Evans is a far superior vocalist. Scott hits the notes, but she has an ordinary voice.
With the aid of the video screens, you could see that these performers didn’t spend a lot of time deciding what to wear onstage, as Haywood was the only one you could say rose above Walmart chic. The set was simple, but the lighting gorgeous, and the bass line always heavy.
This lady should do a few more songs like the breezy number they played acoustic style—the title was unintelligible—after Kelley acknowledged, “We’re kinda known for our sad songs, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” Let’s hope that means they realize that’s something they can work on.
Opening act Sunny Sweeney also has room for growth, but her daring Texas-style bar band persona has a great upside. Once the sun set and the video screens became visible from the long-range seats, she looked the part, too, in a black shirt, blue jeans and bright red lip gloss.
She should definitely listen to her father who she said favors the fiddle-sweetened Haggard-style song “Drink Myself Single,” from her new Republic Nashville CD Concrete. She also featured a steel guitar, the only one seen in either night of “country” acts. She could have said “y’all” less often as her music clearly established her honky-tonk cred, her early single “If I Could” a ripping good time that should send line dancers scrambling for the hardwoods. Too bad it’s way too traditional to get played on country radio, so you’ll have to buy her 2007 CD Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame to hear it.
Sweeney covered some dandy songs from Concrete, too, many delivered while she chomped on some gum and strummed a starburst guitar, often swigging from a red beer cup. She reeled off a string of hard-edged songs like “You Don’t Love Your Husband Like I Do” and “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass,” even turning to flash the seat of her jeans. Maybe Sweeney isn’t the kind of girl you take home to Mom, but her State Fair debut was lightning in a bottle, shining with gutsy vocals and hot, greasy arrangements.
Sugarland’s opening number rumbled quite a bit as heard from binocular territory, but the crew quickly got a grip on it, just in time for the Disney pop of “Stuck On You,” as Jennifer Nettles got animated and Kristian Bush strummed his guitar madly. Nettles held the audience’s attention all night as her stage presence is enormous. Bush is clearly a supporting player, at least in live performances, but it’s not surprising as Nettles is a dynamo on stage.
The duo got playful, cutting loose on “It Happens,” Nettles adding the “sh” they had to eschew to get radio play, and singing passionately on “Tonight.” She should really consider doing musical theater as she seems to be a natural. And natural is all too rare as many performers seem over-rehearsed, but Nettles was quick with a quip and never at a loss in expressing herself. Not only does she really belt it out vocally, she even had some clever rap about the effect of humidity on her hair and a witty remark in response to a sign held by a fan who shares her birthday.
The show came exactly three weeks after their entire band narrowly avoided being on the stage that collapsed at the Indiana State Fair, killing several fans. Thus the song “I’m Okay,” was pertinent and Nettles’ crescendo powerful. Sugarland’s first hit, “Baby Girl,” is still one of their best, and was especially satisfying with the band gathered at the front of the stage singing with an accordion, a mandolin and maracas. That wistful tune didn’t come across with the same innocence as when they recorded it, but it still beat the heck out of their overdone dance club fodder, as on “All I Wanna Do.”
After closing with “Something More,” an encore paid tribute to the Indiana victims, leaving the crowd energized. With video screens providing some close-ups of Nettles wearing a loose green tank top and tight black jeans, and Bush topped with a scull cap, they relied on lighting effects to create a beautiful visual presentation.
There were no projections for their opening act, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, but that may have been her on stage wearing an orange top and a skirt. Her band’s stage set was pushed to the front of the stage, set off with curved panels dotted with colored bulbs, her black grand piano nearly invisible as it blended into the background.
No doubt Bareilles was unfamiliar to many in the crowd, but she acted as if she were among friends, with a vocal style that reminds somewhat of two women named Jones, Norah and Ricky Lee. She invited fans to sing along on one song, apparently one of her better known, and got them clapping on one she said was about “people who should mind their own damn business.”
After commenting on the hot night, the 31-year-old Californian welcomed Sugarland’s Bush to accompany her, playing something with strings on “Basket Case,” a song she admitted is “a little depressing,” an understatement for sure. She does uplifting as well, as her “Many the Miles” was a funky ballad with soul and a great lyric about “Too many sunsets I haven’t seen.” She started out front before drifting back to her keys, surely a metaphor for who she is musically.
Her tunes had a good vibe, but lyrics were tough to get. She sang one song she said was about a “douche bag,” and from the few words we could make out, it’s safe to say it was about some guy who ticked her off rather than a gynecological ailment. It’s tough to get much out of songs you don’t know when you can’t hear the lyrics. Her finale, a ballad about an ex-boyfriend she said was a jerk, was delivered solo, seated at her piano, a departure from the usual rousing closing, one that left the audience eased down rather than charged up.
was great to see some different acts at the Grandstand for country fans
this year, making for a welcome trend that should continue.