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Friday, February 12, 2016

Live: Finding Surprises and Solidarity in Songs with Jennifer Nettles & Co.

Posted by on Fri, Feb 12, 2016 at 7:43 AM

click to enlarge Jennifer Nettles - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Photo courtesy of the artist
  • Jennifer Nettles
Jennifer Nettles, Brandy Clark, Lindsay Ell, Tara Thompson
DPAC, Durham
Friday, Feb. 5, 2016


For last week's all-sisters-no-misters country showcase at DPAC, I brought a close female friend along as my “date.” This seemed to be a trend in the audience, as I heard several enthusiastic crows of “Girls’ night out!” in the lobby. Indeed, the evening proved to be a much more significant feminist foray than I’d expected.

Though headliner Jennifer Nettles and her main opener, Brandy Clark, are well established in country  circles, the first two performers have been branded CMT’s “Next Women of Country.” Both Tara Thompson and Lindsay Ell presented their own takes on small-town life, with Ell bolstering her words through a white Stratocaster routed through loop stations and pedals.  

Thompson’s fifteen-minute set offered an immediate wave of charm and delight. Her lyrics were blunt and funny. I expected “Vows” to be saccharine and cheesy after Thompson introduced it as a song about her sister’s wedding, but this was a shotgun affair in which the groom was making out with a bridesmaid and attendees were betting cigarettes that the marriage wouldn’t make it to Labor Day. Another number, about being “a single girl in a single wide,” was a sharp, heartening tune about finding independence. 

Brandy Clark’s set hammered hard on what I’d liked most about both of those that came before it. Like Thompson, Clark didn’t beat around the bush with her lyrics. She addressed a lot of difficult-to-reckon truths about life as a woman with a sense of humor. On “Crazy Women,” Clark sang about how maybe the women who get such a label are perhaps a product of the men who call them that, while “Homecoming Queen” (which Sheryl Crow recorded) chronicled the pain of feeling unmoored in a disappointing life after high school. Even “Get High,” with its fun refrain of “Sometimes the only way to get by is to get high," spoke to deeper issues of the ways we try to get out of feeling trapped.

By comparison, Nettles’ offerings felt less significant overall, but she still delivered a hell of a set. She’s touring in support of her spring LP Playing With Fire, imagery that popped up in the stage design as much as the set list (which included a cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”). She pulled in some of her Sugarland hits—“Baby Girl” and “Stay”—and her particularly sweet and sassy single from last year, “Sugar.” Nettles strutted and egged on the crowd like a bona fide entertainer. She was an absolute delight.

I left the show feeling re-invigorated, pleasantly surprised by how actively female-friendly the whole bill was, completely free of “lil’ ol’ me” positioning. The performers weren’t presenting the type of chic feminism that’s been showing up in pop music of late; in fact, I don’t think I heard The F-Word all night. Rather, these women were mostly writing bold, blatant songs about their own experiences—and, it seems, finding some pretty decent success with them.

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