There were no problems with the lighting at stage left in the Northcote Social Club for the Melbourne debut of Georgian chart toppers Sugarland.

Support act The McClymonts chose the merchandising counter as the locale for photo shoots with fans in boots from Utes driven into town from the bush.

The Golden Guitar winning Grafton born sisters seemed to be doing more business on aptly titled debut CD Chaos And Bright Lights than their headliners whose tee shirts bore a $40 price tag.

And, even when the house lights dimmed for the arrival of Sugarland, there was still a shaft above the merchandise HQ.

It enabled a brunette merchandiser, hair sensibly tied back in a clip, to enjoy her page turning paperback with the tell all marking of the trusty remaindered pen on the spine, for the entire 15 song set.

Now, was this concert for an internationally acclaimed duo with CD and DVD sales exceeding a cool five million an experience to send a city slicker to the retreat of a discount book?

Well, it depends on your musical taste.

The McClymonts warmed the audience with a snappy selection from their country pop debut on Universal, also Australian label for Sugarland.

A national regional tour with country king Lee Kernaghan and a brace of big festivals, fuelled by CMC and Nu Country TV exposure-community radio airplay, has enabled them to lift their profile.

Their stage patter, drenched in filial folksiness, is also endearing to an audience with a penchant for feel good country - not the ruptured romance roughage of peers living on the edge.

So the sisters were an ideal entree for the headliners who enjoyed much larger crowds on their weekend performances at major festivals in Fremantle and Thredbo.

But this was a sold out gig at a busy venue where fans didn't suffer the summer sauna sweat like the 2007 concert for Steve Young and Mary Gauthier.

The decision to cap the crowd and open a western door at appropriate times enabled a breeze to give welcome relief.


The folksiness didn't dissipate during the arrival on stage of Jennifer Nettles, partner in rhyme Kristian Bush and five piece backing band.

Sugarland may be huge stars in the U.S. but this was back to basics rebirth in an inner northern suburbs bar that also hosted fellow Fremantle, Thredbo and Byron Bay guest Patty Griffin on her Australian debut last year with guitarist Doug Lancio.

There was no on stage drum roll or hype - just waves from Nettles and Bush, replete with a leather hat that owed more to Dr Hook icon Ray Sawyer than Charlie Daniels.

The duo took its band name from a city in Ford Bend county in South-east Texas so it was no surprise they kicked off this Beer Can Hill sojourn with the title track of debut disc Twice The Speed Of Life.

"We drove all night to get to Corpus Christi, my parents slept right through they never missed me," sang Nettles, who hails from Douglas in the rural rump of south Georgia near the Florida border.

They primed small town nostalgia with a quick segue into County Line, extolling the bliss of adolescence - "it's first love and football wars/ a French kiss and battle cries/ further than I've been before/ down on the county line."

The embryonic romance theme continued in Want To with Nettles using tambourine, equally as a prop and instrument, and Bush swapping acoustic guitar for mandolin and electric guitar in successive songs.

This was a show big on visual communication - eye contact and audience inter-action was a joyous conduit to a brand new audience in a distant hemisphere.

It wasn't just Nettles and Bush - beaming bassist Annie Clements was effervescent in her playing and harmonising with her enduring aura of beatific bliss.

Guitarists James Patton and Robert Beaty traded licks with each other and Bush with little of the detached disdain practiced by road weary rock dogs.

Drummer Travis McNabb, frocked up in tie and short-sleeved jumper, was energised akin to keyboard player Brandon Bush who also played accordion.

With only five years on the Sugarland clock but many more in the pre-fame bar wars with diverse outfits they showed no sign of contempt for their life blood - the fans.

So it was no surprise they appeared to enjoy acting out new song Operation Working Vacation in this remote outpost.

"It feels like swampy Georgia up here on stage," Nettles joked before confessing they were tempted to change the lyrics of Every Day America for their host country.

Then it was time for a love ballad - Just Might Make Be Believe - but no credit to its writer and band co-founder Kristen Hall, now 46, who walked the plank as Sugarland soared to success in 2006.

But Nettles, just 33, confessed that the duo, prolific writers, did not compose their next song - a bluegrass version of Beyonce hit Irreplaceable.

This enabled them to stretch out with Bush again swapping guitar for mandolin while namesake accordionist Brandon Bush enriched their gymnastic genre role reversal.

It preceded the septet road testing the rollicking We Run - second song here from its third album, recorded in Atlanta in February.


Then it was time for their latest hit Stay - a cheating song written from the viewpoint of the woman in the triangle urging her lover to return to his betrothed with accordion front and centre in the mix.

It was perhaps ironic that Texas tabloid TV drama Cheaters was aired an hour later on the night of this concert on the Seven Network.

But viewers were not treated to the innovative use of Stay as an aural soundtrack to its guilt filled climaxes.

Maybe the merchandiser, still turning remaindered book pages under her bright light shaft, was also enjoying a cheating tale.

Nettles announced a tempo change for second album entrée Settlin' before comparing touring to a zoo visit as her intro to Down In Mississippi Up To No Good.

The band's unashamed attempts to broaden their music audience peaked in Who Says You Can't Go Home - the Grammy award winning Nettles-Jon Bon Jovi hit.

Then it was back to their embryonic hit Baby Girl - a salient snapshot of their journey to stardom and fools gold distractions.

"Black top, blue sky/ big town full of little white lies/ everybody's your friend, you can never be sure/ they'll promise fancy cars and diamond rings."

By now, with the encore looming, Bush was bombarding the audience with plectrums on a smaller scale than Ronnie Dunn's drumstick shower at the tennis court.

The band decamped stage briefly before a rapid return with Nettles crowd-pleasing retort - "we didn't want to go home anyway."

It was perhaps fitting that the one song encore was Something More - entrée song for their debut disc.

Despite audience clamors for more the house lights were soon ignited - yes, by the merchandiser who belatedly laid down her book for the business of tee shirt sales.

It was only 10.30 p m on Beer Can Hill but with a 15 song set this was a nice intro to a band whose return tour is likely to be in much larger venues.

That will, of course, depend on success of the multi-media blitz to open the doors of commercial radio and TV.

Sugarland may not be as challenging cerebrally as the singer-songwriters who fuel the genre but, like Brooks & Dunn, they gave their audience what they wanted - a snappy set of feel good country pop.

Nettles' vocal range is equally dynamic live as on record and a vibrant vehicle for the songs reflecting life in the Sugarland version of the New South and way beyond.

Their reward was the reaction from an audience, most from out of the city limits, in a nation where country is the forgotten genre in the big smoke and mirrors media.

Review by David Dawson

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