Review: Carrie Underwood at 1st Mariner Arena, November 16
After she’d steamrolled through “Wasted” and “Quitter” – two songs that nicely showed off a brassy attitude – the stage was bathed in green lights.
Rain sound effects started playing over the speakers, and an enormous fake tree branch descended from the ceiling with a swing set hanging from it, making the arena look like the forest in “Fern Gully.”
She didn’t just deliver her next number, “Just a Dream,”already a schmaltzy love song, wearing a ruffled, Pepto-bismol-pink, floor-length skirt, she did it while swinging from that tree branch.
Usually, such images don’t exist outside straight-to-video Disney movies, but Underwood returned to them again and again Tuesday night, marring what would have otherwise been a solid showcase of her voice. A remarkable singer with five Grammys to her credit and a string of hits after winning “American Idol” in 2005, she has two performance registers: cheesy and defiant, pivoting between rowdy numbers - usually written by the great songwriter Hillary Lindsey - and fluff like “Just a Dream.”
While she hit all her notes, emoted on cue, and sparkled nearly as much as Ryan Seacrest’s highlights during all 21 of her numbers, it was only during those moments of pent-up abandon (“Last Name,” “Quitter”) that she was at her best.
Underwood took the stage a little after 9 p.m., straddling a red divan and sporting a Gothic trench coat and a gaudy choker. (Her openers were Billy Currington and Sons of Sylvia, who, at least judging by an autograph line that rivaled the one to the women’s room, were a hit with the crowd. )
Performing before a mostly sold-out arena, she kicked things off with three rousing kiss-off songs, “Cowboy Casanova,” “Wasted” and “Quitter” that showed off an attitude fit for her big voice.
She was excellent in “Wasted,” written by Lindsey, leading rather than keeping up with her energetic seven piece band.
Though she didn’t really move, overact, or, in fact, leave her red couch during these first few numbers, she’s a powerful enough singer that she still registered the cockiness the songs demand. Her back-up singer was left with not much to do but dance beside the fiddle player in the top hat.
She switched gears for the next portion of the show, slowing things down with “Just a Dream,” the kind of song that sounds ripped from a Hallmark musical greeting card.
And then delivered a spiel she’s no doubt already recounted before many an award show: how she slept on the back of her mom’s car on her way to the “American Idol” audition, how she watched awards shows as a little girl, how she first heard the demo to “Jesus, Take the Wheel” while cleaning her bathroom.
“The last five or six years have been pretty awesome for me,” she said, the giant tree branch hanging behind her, looking sadly out of place, as fake as all the sentiment on stage.
Songs like “Temporary Home” and “Change” – both a series of mawkish vignettes of stock characters who’ve fallen on hard times – were meant to play like sincere ballads, but sounded anything but. It didn’t help matters she sang the latter song behind an LCD dress that displayed images of rainbows and shooting stars.
She also misfired with John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Instead of playing it like the earnest ode to Americana that it is, she did it while riding a flashy blue pick-up truck that didn’t look like it had ever been taken out of the dealership, let alone been in West Virginia.
Only when she performed her duet with Randy Travis, “I Told you So,” did she strike the right tone on a ballad. Love songs don’t have to be overdone; they don’t have to come with a cloying montage of wedding photos – like “Mama’s Song” did – they can be stripped down and simple. With Travis performing on video, it was her most honestly country moment in an otherwise pop-ified set.
Thankfully, for the finale, she played three tunes that played to her strengths. On “Last Name,” also written by Lindsey, she sounded sassy and defiant; a performance fit for a bachelorette party. And on “Songs like This,” she sampled Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”
“Wanna find some boy/ rip his heart right out/First man I see, gonna take him down/It ain't the Christian thing/to do, they say/But someone, somewhere's gotta pay.”
It was an appropriate mashup that showed that, like Beyonce, Underwood sounds best when she’s on a rampage.
1. Cowboy Casanova
4. I know you won't
5. Some Hearts
6. Just a dream
7. Temporary Home
8. Someday When I Stop Loving You
9. All American Girl
10. So Small
11. Take Me Home, Country Roads (John Denver cover)
12. This Time
13. Undo It
14. Jesus, Take the Wheel
15. What Can I Say (duet with Sons of Sylvia)
17. I Told You So
18. Mama's Song
19. Last Name
20. Before he Cheats
21. Songs like This