Monday, March 31, 2014

Jennifer Nettles, Brandy Clark concert review: Los Angeles

My review originally appeared at

When veteran producer Rick Rubin works with someone, the results often stand among that artist’s best work up to that point.

That’s been the case with Neil Diamond, Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash, and it it’s the same for Jennifer Nettles, whose impressive solo debut, That Girl, came out earlier this year.

A nuanced collection, it delves into ’70s singer-songwriter pop, Memphis-style R&B, early rock ’n’ roll and a hint of the country sound that propelled Nettles to superstar status over the past decade with Sugarland.

The singer wrote or co-wrote the material with Sara Bareilles, Little Big Town’s Philip Sweet, Richard Marx and others; Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, the Dap-Kings and Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan are among the studio players.

During an intimate and engaging sold-out show Saturday night at the Wiltern, Nettles performed all of That Girl plus a few covers and Sugarland hits to a boisterous crowd. A smattering of fans sported cowboy hats, while some clusters of drunken women loudly voiced their approval at inopportune times (hey, save it for Stagecoach next month).

Before the 95-minute set began, country classic “Jolene” played on the venue sound system. It wasn’t a random selection: Dolly Parton’s lyrics inspired the new album’s title track, co-penned by Nettles’ fellow Atlanta native and producer du jour Butch Walker.

Clad in black leather pants, the blond vocalist initially appeared at the back of the stage near billowy curtains and a quilted backdrop. Then she slowly slinked up to the microphone and sang “I’m not the scarlet devil/ I don’t wanna take your man” to an intriguing melody and sampled handclap loop.

Several tunes were tweaked slightly for their live incarnations. The fun and jaunty “Moneyball” was prefaced by an a capella verse by her solid four-man band; it transitioned nicely into a stripped-down take on Sugarland’s “Baby Girl.”

Striking mellifluous ballads like “Me Without You,” “Thank You” and “His Hands” (accompanied by opening act Brandy Clark) were subtly shaded with combinations of acoustic guitars, keyboards, accordion or electric piano. A riveting “This Angel” showcased her fine contralto but had to be restarted after a fan required medical assistance near the stage front.

Nettles delivered the stunning standout “Falling” while seated at a piano; her dramatic vocals were a wonder to behold. “My roots are showing on this album,” she explained afterward. “For those of you who remember ’70s radio, here’s a ‘yacht rock’ primer, which served as a common thread.”

A faithful cover of “Biggest Part of Me,” Ambrosia’s lush Top 10 single from 1980 (wrong decade, Jennifer, but we got the point), suited her well, and after praising Barry Manilow, the singer paid tribute with a bit of “Weekend in New England.” Still at the keys, Nettles and the musicians seamlessly segued into the romantic “This One’s for You,” joined by a three-piece horn section.

Not everything was so serious.

The humorous, Spanish guitar-accented “Jealousy” included Nettles dancing around and got the crowd riled up. They responded mightily during Sugarland’s spirited “All I Wanna Do,” too, before which a male fan proposed marriage to his girlfriend. (That caused an awkward pause, though. It wasn’t clear initially what was happening after Nettles mentioned some guy had something to say, and there was nothing but quiet for what seemed like more than five minutes.)

Walker joined 'em for lead vocals and guitar on his own jubilant rootsy rocker "Let it Go Where It's Supposed To," from 2013's Peachtree Battle EP. A surprising Americana-styled take on Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” proved haunting and melded into Sugarland’s “Something More,” resplendent in high-flying harmonies.

Nearing the home stretch, Nettles’ dramatic delivery on that duo’s big hit “Stay” was equally well-received. Finally, as on the new album, she capped the evening with a powerful version of Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.”

All told, a solid solo performance from start to finish.

Since the late 2000s, singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, 38, has seen an impressive array of country stars record her tunes: Toby Keith, Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker, Gretchen Wilson, most recently Kacey Musgraves.

The vivid portraits of small-town folk on Clark’s own excellent and critically acclaimed album last year, 12 Stories, often mirrors ’80s stalwarts K.T. Oslin and Rosanne Cash, not to mention the younger Musgraves (they teamed for a trio of songs on her multiple Grammy-winning effort Same Trailer Different Park).

Had I heard Stories late last year, it definitely would've made my year-end Best Albums list.

At the Wiltern, Clark walked onstage with her acoustic guitar and proceeded to captivate the crowd with a half-hour set, opening with the feisty “Crazy Women” (recorded by LeAnn Rimes) and its rejoinder “... are made by crazy men,” which drew loud cheers.

Even more came amid “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Miranda Lambert’s hit, co-penned by Clark, Musgraves and Shane McAnally and up for song of the year at next week’s Academy of Country Music Awards. By the time Clark got ’round to “Better Dig Two,” a favorite from the Band Perry, most people in the crowd were heartily singing and clapping along.

Elsewhere, “Pray to Jesus” and the gentle, keening vocals of “Hold My Hand” were touching, and Clark explained that “Get High” was written about “a girl in my high-school class. People come up to me after shows and say they know someone like that,” she added, before noting that it goes down well in unusual parts of the country – definitely in California. 

Her high point, however, was the darkly humorous closer, “Stripes,” a rockabilly-tinged winner on record that worked equally well in solo acoustic form. I look forward to seeing Clark with a full band in the future.

Photos by Kelly A. Swift

No comments: