HINCKLEY, MINN. – Name the last member of a country-music duo to go on to a successful solo career.
Not Big Kenny or John Rich. Not Kix Brooks or Ronnie Dunn.
You don’t have to go as far back as Dolly Parton, who left Porter Wagoner in 1970. But the answer does stretch back to Wynonna Judd cutting the cord from Mama Naomi in ’92.
It’s not known if Jennifer Nettles is leaving Sugarland, but judging by her Minnesota solo debut Saturday at the sold-out Grand Casino events center in Hinckley, Sugarland is not her sweet spot. Her cup of tea is 1970s lite-FM pop/rock.
Not only did she offer karaoke-like covers of Ambrosia (eeh), Barry Manilow (yuck) and Bob Seger (awright!), but she also delivered new material from her two-month-old debut solo album, “That Girl,” which sounded like the ’70s. She even reshaped four Sugarland tunes to fit this style, and — to top it off — her wide bell-bottoms were, like, totally ’70s, man.
Whether you call the music singer-songwriter, Southern soul or yacht rock (Nettles used that phrase), it was clear that this wasn’t Saturday-night music. There was only one up-tempo tune, the main-set closer, the gossip-obsessed “Know You Wanna Know” cowritten by Nettles with ’80s/’90s popmeister Richard Marx. The rest of the songs were ballads or midtempo.
Nettles, 39, showed off her rangy, powerful and twangy voice, but her material — which she cowrote with such respected names as Sara Bareilles, Butch Walker and Mike Reid — was not particularly compelling.
Her debut single, “Falling” — a reflection about losing her virginity behind a barn to a boy who worked for her family and was heading off to college — hasn’t gained much radio traction and didn’t get much more than a polite reaction on Saturday. Same for the show opener “That Girl,” a tune about not wanting to be that girl who cheats with a married man but did it anyway and now feels compelled to confess to his wife. At least, “That Girl” was punctuated with “whoa-ooh-ooh-oohs,” a bit that historically worked for Sugarland, notably on “All I Want to Do,” which she sang Saturday in a stripped-down version.
The high points of the 85-minute set were “Thank You,” a sweet, if sappy, love note, and “Stay,” the Sugarland hit ballad that will always be Nettles’ signature vocal tour de force.
Backed by four fine musicians, Nettles played piano or guitar and made perfunctory comments about her love of 1970s music. (Example: After mentioning Manilow, she said, “You can laugh if you want to, but he got more of you laid than you want to admit.”) Other than talking about her musical influences, the businesslike star didn’t really offer any insights into her personality or life (no mention of her 15-month-old son) — something fans might have expected in this new solo situation.
Nettles did not once mention Sugarland or Kristian Bush, her partner in that duo. But maybe the concert calendar spoke for her: Bush will make his Minnesota solo debut April 11 at Grand Casino Mille Lacs.
Opening the concert was the terrific Brandy Clark, the songwriter behind Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two.” With just an acoustic guitar and her rich, husky voice, Clark, 36, proved to be a must-hear singer of her clever, cheeky lyrics, especially on “Pray to Jesus,” “Crazy Women” and “Stripes.” (She couldn’t pull the trigger because she wouldn’t look good in stripes or orange.)