Kristian Bush hit the stage at City Winery on May 30 and said he was going to play "an hour-and-a-half of music you've never heard of."
He was fibbing, and telling the truth, all at the same time.
Jennifer Nettles’ Sugarland tag-team partner doesn’t have the benefit of trading lead vocals with the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Beyonce during Sugarland’s ascent, leaving him in a much more challenging promotional position when the still-close singer/songwriting pair chose to take a break and pursue solo projects.
Luckily, Bush’s contagiously joyous expressions while backing up Nettles onstage were not a façade. Ever the pure musician, Bush seems to be taking this newfound opportunity as yet another blessed creative journey, as opposed to some stressed venture aimed at matching Nettles’ star power.
Otherwise, a man promoting an upcoming album wouldn’t be offering performances that are essentially poetry in the park with backup vocalists.
With the childlike glee of a street performer instead of a freshly minted solo artist needing to shoehorn in potential singles, he said that he had 300 potential album songs compiled for the City Winery crowd. But he added that the establishment just didn’t have the vino in stock for him to get through all of them, so he encouraged folks to record entire songs on their phones in case they were discarded for good. (Merely the tease of getting your own ditty for the LIRR ride back to Hicksville is a nice touch.)
As it pertains to live shows, the underexposed Bush now has the advantage of carrying more new tricks in his bag than Nettles. (Not to slight Nettles; take a look at the Pop Cult live review of her show at the Beacon Theatre earlier this year).
But the truth is that most of Sugarland’s songs are creations of both Nettles and Bush, and now he gets to take them out for a spin. Add in the fact that Sugarland junkies are jonesing to hear him take center stage after getting hints of his lead vocal skills on songs like “Stand Up” from Sugarland’s 2010 “Incredible Machine,” and the curiosity factor fills up the house.
Those who come get some classic Sugarland songs, but Bush deftly balances respecting the original versions while still finding his own voice. When Bush delivered his stirring take on “Baby Girl” he refused to rework the gender-specific “remember me in ribbons and curls,” leaving the lyrics just as they lay while giving it a decidedly more coffeehouse than honky-tonk bent.
Bush laughs about spending years in the writing mode of a woman to help pen the songs Nettles made famous. So unlike Brooks & Dunn’s amicable musical split, Bush’s latest career path is more than getting to stretch his wings – it’s downright transformational. His ability to create for himself shows in new single “Love or Money,” in which a well-meaning man passionately offers his heart to a lady – largely because he has little more than that to give.
Conversely, Bush has so much to offer, and he’s enjoying finding new ways to express himself. He’s often performed Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” during Sugarland concerts, but when he walked past his microphone and offered a stunning fully acoustic version, it was fitting.
Bush seems quite comfortable stepping to the forefront.