It was the way they looked at each other. The smiles they exchanged. The little choreographed dances. The singing face to face.
Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles peered at her musical partner Kristian Bush on Friday night at the packed grandstand at the Minnesota State Fair with a singing message: "We've both got dreams we could chase alone."
It's from "Want To," Sugarland's No. 1 country song from 2006. The hit sums up the state of the hitmaking duo. After a five-year hiatus for solo careers and other dreams chased, Nettles and Bush are back together. And they not only seemed happy about it, but their performance Friday was better than ever.
Always a standout vocalist, Nettles, 43, has become a more fully realized entertainer, punctuating her performance with hand gestures to illustrate lyrics and dancing without the gawkiness of old.
She also just seemed more engaged with Bush, 48, who always plays second fiddle as the duo's acoustic guitarist/songwriter/harmony singer. This time, they seemed like a more full-fledged duo than just a singer and a sidekick.
This was especially underscored on their more intimate moments, such as a quiet, heartfelt cover of art-rocker Peter Gabriel's "Talk to Me" and "Stay," Sugarland's pleading 2007 hit ballad and Nettles' signature that helped define her as one of the most potent female balladeers in country music.
While those more subtle numbers may have been artistic highlights, the near-capacity crowd of 12,418 got excited about Sugarland's up-tempo pop tunes that pass as country, thanks to Nettles' twangy-as-Dolly-Parton voice. With their simple homespun philosophies, "Settlin' " ("I ain't settlin' for less than everything") and "Something More" ("There's gonna be something more/ Gotta be more than this") connected with the fans.
Sugarland stepped out of the country-comfort lane with a cover of pop singer-songwriter Patty Griffin's "Tony," with printed words on a screen behind the stage saying that words matter, that LGBTQ people, especially kids, need affirmation and protection. Those were bold and important words — and even a bolder position for a band in country music trying to make a comeback in a conservative genre after a hiatus.
Sugarland didn't hit the reunion trail without a new album. Several selections from the new record, "Bigger," were featured on Friday, the best being the restrained ballad "Not the Only One" and the rollicking "On a Roll," which led into a medley of dance-happy funk and soul oldies, including George Clinton's "We Want the Funk," Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Madonna's "Express Yourself."
By contrast, Sugarland's finale was an overdone version of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," with opening acts Frankie Ballard and Lindsay Ell sitting in.
Members of Ballard's and Ell's bands also backed Sugarland all night — or maybe it was the other way around. Whatever the case, neither of the openers delivered the goods to suggest they'll have big careers soon.
While Ell, a 28-year-old Canadian, showed a likable Sheryl Crow-evoking voice, she tried too often to show off her considerable guitar skills when the emotion of the song didn't call for it.
Looking a bit like Michael J. Fox dressed up as James Dean, Ballard, 35, from Battle Creek, Mich., offered a raspy voice with no range and cheesy entertainment instincts, including Elvis Presley moves, Motown mimicking and a Tom Jones cover.
Well, at the least the grandstand became one-stop shopping for fairgoers who wanted something sweet and something cheesy.