Who would have thought, nearly 15 (!) years ago, that the shy Oklahoma girl with the massive voice would translate not only into a singing contest darling, but a bonafide, arena-filling superstar?
Carrie Underwood’s steady success marks her as the reigning queen of country music. She’s only 36, but feels like the elder stateswoman to peers just a few years younger, such as Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves.
Her growth as an artist has been apparent through her six studio albums – last year’s “Cry Pretty” is the impetus for this tour, which began in May and wraps on Halloween – and her comfort on stage has been a noticeable graduation as well.
At Saturday night’s packed performance at State Farm Arena – Underwood’s first appearance here since 2016 – she rose on a platform in a blitz of lasers and electric guitar for the opening “Southbound” and carried the crowd through a brisk two hours of professional showmanship.
Though Underwood chatted several times throughout the night – about her family, her musical inspirations and her own amazement at her head-spinning career (“It was just such a big dream” she said of her winning stint on “American Idol”) – she’s perfected the art of being perfectly congenial without ever really saying much.
But still, her combination of in-the-round spectacle, powerhouse vocals and a setlist that touched on her full catalog and left room to pay homage to her forbears worked extremely well.
With her seven-piece band and backup singer spaced out at opposite ends of a stage that covered nearly the length of the arena floor, Underwood looked comfortable navigating the hydraulic platforms that put her eye level with the lower level during “Last Name.”
She displayed her admirable legs in a silver sparkly dress – the first of about six outfits she donned during the show – as she strode the stage for “Cowboy Casanova,” one of the many feisty anthems in her oeuvre, and brushed some strings on an electric guitar during “Church Bells.”
That tune, paired with “Two Black Cadillacs” and “Blown Away,” formed an ideal trifecta of Underwood’s sweet spot – soaring songs that couch enough banjo and twang among the power chords to mollify country fans while also appealing to her own rock interests (note the lights-go-down pre-show choice of Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” and Underwood’s impressive aping of Steven Tyler’s iconic scream during her brief segue into Aerosmith’s “Dream On”).
But a highlight of the show had little to do with country or rock. With an upright bass and saxophone sharing her spotlight, Underwood dove into the jazz-dusted “Drinking Alone,” from her current album. It was a stark stylistic departure with a gutsy vocal that captivated (and bonus points for the “Careless Whisper” sax snippet, as well as another Wham! nod – “Freedom” – later in the night).
A pair of medleys also sparked the show. The first, which Underwood dubbed, “our walk down memory lane,” included the poignant ballads “Temporary Home” and “See You Again” (with Underwood on piano), while her tribute to her “she-roes” allowed openers Runaway June and Maddie & Tae to return to the stage.
The salute to some of country music’s celebrated mavens – Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man,” which Underwood began a capella), Dolly Parton (“9 to 5”), The Judds (“Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain”), Reba McEntire (“Why Haven’t I Heard from You”) and Shania Twain (“Man! I Feel Like a Woman”) – provided Underwood with a fun detour, and possibly a blueprint for a performance when she, McEntire and Parton host the CMA Awards in November.
Sandwiched between was the obligatory “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Underwood’s first No. 1 hit and a song she said, “means more to me today than the first time I heard it,” as well as “The Bullet,” a visceral ballad about the effects of gun violence that was accompanied by images of military funerals and candlelight vigils.
Underwood’s vocal prowess has always been undeniable. But as her career continues to thrive, it’s heartening to witness this “Cry Pretty” tour, which matches her ambition with her talent.
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