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Jennifer Nettles retains best of Sugarland on ‘That Girl’ journey

Jennifer Nettles arrives at the Billboard Music Awards

Jennifer Nettles arrives at the Billboard Music Awards on May 19, 2013 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Credit: AP

Yoga mats for sale at a country music show?

Not your standard memorabilia-table swag, but Sugarland was never your standard Music Row act. The yoga mat was the second-biggest thing I remember about the group’s PNC Bank Arts Center show I went to in 2010.

The first was near the end of Sugarland’s set, when Jennifer Nettles pointed to a group of men sporting western wear that leaned more Village People than George Strait. She pointed to one of them to say his vest was “fabulous.” He immediately handed it to her, she put it on, and her new friend insisted she keep it before she left the stage.

Fast-forward almost four years. Nettles and partner Kristian Bush are taking a Sugarland break, leaving the former to release her “That Girl” album. At her show earlier this month at the Beacon Theatre, Nettles took a moment to congratulate -- to massive applause -- a just-married couple in the audience who tweeted at her earlier in the day.

The couple’s names: Joseph and Steven.

Now, don’t get the idea that her performances carry an especially activist tone. She just makes everyone welcome and -- by the way -- might be the best female singer on this planet, period. (She couldn’t have held her own with the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Adele and Rihanna on awards-show collaborations if she weren’t on the very short list.)

And yet, much of what you leave with isn’t necessarily about the songs. Speaking of her largely ’70s-inspired release and mentioning Barry Manilow, she added, “You can laugh if you want but he got more of you [loved] than you care to remember.”

While she largely stuck to her current album’s songs, her shifts to the past weren’t jarring. “Moneyball,” the “That Girl” track that reminds devotees not to lose themselves seeking success, was followed by “Baby Girl,” the breakout debut Sugarland single praising the relentlessness of one chasing her dreams.

Genre notwithstanding, more than anything “That Girl” differs from Sugarland’s releases largely in how you’re completely duped -- in a good way -- by the tone the opening notes of songs create before Nettles goes in the exact opposite direction. “Me Without You” connotes heart-wrenching pain before Nettles offers a three-and-a-half-minute deep breath of relief for a jagged relationship mercifully ended.

“Jealousy” sounds like a story of oceanside relationship bliss is coming before Nettles tees off on a relationship rival and her “skanky fake hair,” among other things.  

Legendary producer Rick Rubin should get some credit for all the twists and turns, but Nettles gets the most, as her songwriting chops have gotten even sharper.

Nettles put it best while on the Beacon stage: “My roots are showing on this album, in a good way.”

For locals planning summer music trips, the tour hits the update Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater on July 11, along with back-to-back shoes in Massachusetts Aug. 7 and 8.

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