Scotland and Ireland already love country, welcoming back music whose Appalachian heartland has Gaelic roots. Sugarland's rare expedition from the US may yet act as a beachhead to unconquered England. Irrepressible, irresistible singer Jennifer Nettles is their front-line weapon. Songs which at their best touch on suburban, everyday longings add substance.
Nettles is a willowy blonde with a Cameron Diaz smile and deep Georgia twang which, with the mandolin of Kristian Bush's, keeps the duo (backed by a full band here) at pop's country end. Radio 2-playlisted, sanitised single "All I Want to Do" has filled the stalls of the Empire with country loyalists and general pop fans, where their first UK gig might well have seen tumbleweeds blowing through. From Nettles' American Idol warble to the rock guitar solo, this deliberately simple pop song shows Sugarland at their worst. But for most of tonight, they are more down-home and spirited than their albums admit.
"We'll take it back to the mountains here for a bit," Nettles says of "Genevieve", their stab at neo-Appalachian country Gothic. Accordion accompanies rain washing the ink of old love letters away. One-time folk-rocker Bush's mandolin comes into its own here, as it does when he plays REM's "Nightswimming" as an instrumental. But it is "Stay" which catches country's populist strengths. The crowd are hushed, reverently raising their cameraphones at a suddenly shadow-lit Sugarland. "Something More" joins "Settlin'" as an upbeat anthem for working women wanting more. "Who Says You Can't Go Home" then visits country terrain rock thought it had killed: "These are my streets/ The only life I've ever known." In conservative country, the rolling stone happily returns.
Sugarland could take the drums down, to let such sentiments through sometimes thoughtless music. But then, when the drums slam through the ZZ Top-style techno roots of "Like It", or "Take Me for a Ride" reveals Nettles' Southern gospel-soul background, the band's wider remit is clear. Their cover of Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town", an English place they have never been, movingly finds pop's lingua franca. Whether Sugarland are country or not no longer matters.