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Modern country sounds of Urban, Sugarland don't feel like pain at all

Sommet Center, Nashville, August 29, 2009

Reviewed by Jessica Phillips

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"Nothin' ever stays the same/ I know it's hard holdin' on/Even harder trying to let it go..."

So sings Keith Urban in Used To The Pain. Country purists probably agreed with this sentiment wholeheartedly and bypassed Nashville's Sommet Center to head straight to Tootsie's, the Stage, or some other honky tonk on lower Broadway to cry in their beers. This concert of Sugarland and Keith Urban was not a traditional country concert, but a solid and encouraging picture of where country music is headed.

Throughout their one-hour set, Sugarland had energy and ease aplomb, slowly building from It's Love into hits All I Want To Do and Everyday America. Nettles' southern-soaked blues vocals glistened on the powerhouse ballads like Stay and Almost Gone, then turned sassy and twangy for It Happens and Something More. Nettles is equal parts actress and singer, instantly turning on the waterworks when needed or effortlessly getting the crowd on their feet dancing.

The duo made their set as visually interesting as they did musically pleasant. During Joey, thousands of bubbles floated over the audience, while shots of popular Nashville sites flashed on the video screens for Who Says You Can't Go Home. The folk/bluegrass laden, drum-driven Genevieve was set amid a backdrop of lanterns, low lighting and a woodsy, artistic video screen.

However, Genevieve was as close as Sugarland got to traditional country. The duo relied heavily on pop covers, offering a surprisingly well-sung medley of Katrina and the Waves' Walking on Sunshine, Michael Jackson's Rock With You, Nelly's It's Getting Hot In Here and Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On. "Half of Nashville will have to repent before church tomorrow," Nettles said gleefully.

Most of Urban's 2- hour show expressed just how much he has, in fact, changed country music to entice a new generation. His now-legendary guitar prowess owes as much to AC/DC as it does to Chet Atkins. He's rock enough to throw a power guitar solo into the wounded Stupid Boy, and country enough to let said guitar solo almost do the singing (or weeping) for him. This down-home charmer balances a poet's sensitivity and court jester's wit. "Thank you for letting us play for you, my lords," he quipped and bowed to those in the box seats.

While Sugarland offered a good look at their back drops, Urban preferred to let the (mostly young female) fans get a good look at...himself. Twice during his show, walked around the arena and even jumped into the crowd in true rock star fashion to serenade those in the cheap seats. Setting up shop on a small stage near the rear of the arena, Urban asked, "Who's got the good seats now?" before singing the tender Memories of Us (while most people near the front of the arena no doubt felt temporarily cheated after paying heftier prices). Not to fear, Urban made his way back to the main stage to rip into Days Go By, Somebody Like You and Better Half.

Although Urban largely stayed away from cover tunes, the ones he did choose were not usual country singer fare. He referenced the American Rejects' Gives You Hell during the end of You'll Think of Me, raising his fist triumphantly during the line "I'll be over you and on with my life." Urban even snuck in a crowd sing-along with The Banana Boat Song.

Whether Urban took Sugarland's lead (or vice versa) is hard to tell, but Sugarland took the liberty of flashing baby pictures of themselves during Baby Girl, while childhood photos of Urban's band members rotated as they each took a perfectly competent solo at the mic. Bass player and soulful singer Jerry Flowers has been with Urban since their days in the trio The Ranch; it would have been nice to hear the Walking the Country, Desiree or Man of the House. It also would've been great to hear a Sugarland-Urban duet, a la their Seven Bridges Road duet at a recent Cleveland concert.

These artists may not be rip-offs of Hank Sr. or even The Judds, but for Urban and Sugarland fans, this modern country music doesn't feel like pain at all.