Halfway through Sugarland’s set before a packed Saratoga Performing Arts Center Friday night, lead vocalist Jennifer Nettles posed a question to her adoring fans.
“Do you like surprises, Saratoga? In Sugarland, we like surprises,” she said, as partner Kristian Bush pulled out a black acoustic guitar to sign and give away to one lucky audience member. But this was far from the only surprise the band pulled out of its metaphorical sleeve. Throughout the 80-minute set, Bush and Nettles touched on everything from acoustic balladry to country twang to full-on rock guitar raunch, and even threw in a little modern R&B with a quick cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” during one of many medleys.
But the music wasn’t the first thing to grab the crowd’s attention. The band’s current tour is titled “The Incredible Machine” after its fourth album, due out in October. So the elaborate set, looking like something out of “Wild Wild West” with its massive wooden gears and circular screen, made perfect sense, and was certainly eye-catching and entertaining, even if it didn’t really add anything to the songs.
But thanks to some fierce performances from the band’s two principals, the songs didn’t need anything else. “Fly Away,” “It Happens” and “All I Want to Do” opened the show up a little before 9:30 p.m. with a bang, before things slowed down for the contemplative “Want To.” Here Bush showed his instrumental abilities on mandolin, while lead guitarist Scott Hilton laid down the first of many fiery solos.
The band certainly knows how to rock its country, but fared best during the slower, more acoustically driven numbers. “Baby Girl” featured the entire band moving to acoustic instruments for one of the most touching moments of the set. Later on, “Stay” stripped things down even further to just Nettles on vocals and Bush on mournful acoustic guitar.
Danny Gokey and a five-piece band laid on the schmaltz pretty thick for his abbreviated opening set. The 2009 third place finisher on “American Idol” has undergone a country makeover, although all that seems to mean is some strategically placed slide guitar licks throughout the songs. His smooth, soulful vocals don’t quite have that rugged country edge, but worked perfectly fine on such songs as overtly poppy single “My Best Days are Ahead of Me.” Despite Gokey’s strong stage presence, his ballads and more up tempo numbers alike all ended up blending together into a sappy, sunny blur.
Georgia singer-songwriter Luke Bryan fared much better, pumping the already crowded amphitheater up with his infectious, happy-go-lucky energy. He immediately got things off to a rocking start with “Country Man” and “Someone Else Calling You Baby,” as his backing band laid down a muscular, taught groove. With no less than three songs mentioning trucks in some way, including the down-home ballad “We Rode in Trucks,” there was no questioning Bryan’s authenticity.
Highlights included “Drinkin’ Beer and Wastin’ Bullets,” a proto-metal stomp paying tribute to deer hunting, and “Rain is a Good Thing,” which got the crowd up on its feet. Best of all was closer “All My Friends Say,” another anthem that also found room for the first verse and chorus of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” sandwiched in the middle of the song’s twangy, traditional guitar licks.