About midway through her set Saturday night, Jennifer Nettles told a sold-out House of Blues a bit about her new solo record, “That Girl.” “My roots are showing” on it, she said: country, gospel, blues, and most of all, a lot of ’70s radio.
And in case the audience (the bulk of them, unsurprisingly, fans of Nettles’s country-pop band, Sugarland) didn’t get the connection — “those of you who don’t remember because you took too many drugs in the ’80s, or you’re too young,” she joked — she proceeded to provide what she called a “yacht rock primer” (complete with disco ball) that consisted of a cover of Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” and a snippet of Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England.”
Her performance Saturday, abetted by a taut four-piece band that featured acoustic as much as electric guitar, testified to the fact that she wasn’t lying, especially about mining that ’70s-vintage poppy singer-songwriter vein.
After kicking things off with its title track — a clever answer to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Nettles set the table by coming on stage with that classic precursor coming through the house PA — she went on to play the entirety of the new album, moving from Carole King recapitulations (“This One’s for You”) to acoustic soft-rock balladry (“This Angel”) to breezy, Latin-tinged pop (“Jealousy”), barrelhouse rock ’n’ roll (“Know You Wanna Know”), and soulful, gospelized fare (“Good Time to Cry”).
She sprinkled in several Sugarland hits along the way, and whether due to familiarity or proclivity, the crowd response was loudest for those songs. For all that, many of Nettles’s new directions didn’t sound all that far removed from the songs that took her to the upper echelons of mainstream country. That’s because she’s always had one foot planted in the ’70s, even while, as Saturday’s performance showed, she’s currently jumping in with both feet.
Rising country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark preceded Nettles with a half-hour opening set. Accompanied by her own guitar playing, she did a handful of songs from her debut record, “12 Stories,” along with a few of hers that other artists have made into hits. Her stripped-down presentation served to emphasize the power of both her voice and her songwriting, which, in its observational acuity and the depth of its wordplay, recalls the work of Tom T. Hall, one of the finest country songsmiths of them all.