I’ve never paid a lot of attention to “American Idol,” “The Voice” or any of the other TV talent shows. But 14 years ago, Idol got something right.
Carrie Underwood was the hands down fourth season champion, winning easily every round of voting -- for good reason. She is a brilliant vocalist, who displayed that talent by singing the hits of Tiffany and Heart.
Unlike almost every other singing contest champion, she instantly became a star. Going country, Underwood hit the top of the charts with singles “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Wasted” and “Before He Cheats” and making “Some Hearts” the best-selling debut album from a female country artist ever.
Not surprisingly, those hits figured prominently into Underwood’s career-spanning Pinnacle Bank Arena concert Sunday. But the nearly two-hour show was also heavy on “Cry Pretty” with six of the 13 songs from the 2018 record turning up -- including both encore numbers -- the title cut and “Love Wins.”
That’s kind of a bold move to end with two new songs. But it shows both the quality of the songs and Underwood’s confidence in them and her ability to perform them.
It, however, takes far more than stellar singing and hit songs to make for a transcendent arena concert like Sunday night's performance.
In 2019, it requires staging, lights, video and other trickery that goes beyond the usual stage-at-the end-of-the-arena/giant video board setup.
Which is what Underwood’s crew brought to the arena on Saturday and Sunday. The show, presented in the round, was so complex that it had to be “pre-rigged”-- setting the points for hanging its extensive array of lights, scrims and sound equipment the day before the concert.
In the round, however, doesn’t really describe the staging. Two curved, lighted runways crossed -- think of those magnetic fish symbols displayed on cars -- with a connecting runway. Above that hung rows of lights, and scrims that followed the same curving path. Outside the curves were pods of lights which cast their colors as much on the audience as the performers on stage.
If that wasn’t enough, the runways were, in several places, interconnected mechanical platforms that would lift Underwood and members of her eight-piece band high above the floor throughout the show. Suffice it to say, she must have no fear of heights.
While the platforms were going up and down, the scrims above raised and lowered, with, most often, Underwood projected on them -- so everyone in the place had a close up look at her, even when she was singing with her back to them.
The only direct comparison I can use to describe Underwood’s staging is U2’s 2018 show at Omaha’s CHI Health Center, which utilized two giant scrims running the length of the arena. I called that presentation “astounding.” Underwood’s was all of that and more.
Stealing a page from the book of Cher, Underwood changed costumes about a half dozen times -- she goes in for sparkly sequined numbers. And she turned up banging on a Stratocaster after one change, donned a fedora and grabbed an old-style microphone for a smoky lounge number and did a more than credible job on a hand drum on “End Up With You.”
Combining showmanship, constant motion around the stage and on the platforms and her unmatched vocals, Underwood then became the consummate entertainer, performing in a state-of-the-art production
That’s what creates the rarity -- a great arena concert that stands out among the dozens of tours playing big buildings around the world.
Underwood’s concert drew nearly 12,000 people to the arena, not quite a sellout, but a very strong performance -- especially in light of other shows, like that in St. Louis a few nights early where parts of the arena’s upper level were curtained off.
The attendance, perhaps, was less than the 15,000 for Underwood’s 2016 PBA show because she hadn’t put out any new music in the three years before she released “Cry Pretty” last year. But it also may have been impacted by today’s male domination of country radio and, thereby its hits.
Underwood is far from an edgy artist, talking about faith and family in concert, posting cute videos, like that of her husband, former National Hockey League player Mike Fisher making their 5-month-old baby Jacob cry with his singing on social media and tweeting about how much she loved shows and the sculpture in her likeness that was made out of cheese -- in Wisconsin, of course.
So she’s never going to publicly bite the country radio hand that feeds her, or risk alienating the listeners by talking about the fact that , by and large, the format of late has become so male dominated that only six of the songs on last week’s Billboard country Top 50 were performed by women.
One of those was Underwood’s “Southbound,” another, Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks.”
Runaway June, a trio of young women, was one of Sunday’s openers along with the duo, Maddie & Tae, creating an all-female bill, which joined together to pay tribute to their roots with a medley of songs done by country legends from Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn to Reba McEntire, the Judds and Shania Twain.
That was a concert highlight -- as was Runaway Jane’s harmony-filled performance of “Blue Roses” the title cut of their forthcoming album. But it also made a strong yet subtle point that women have long been top country artists and are now being, to some measure, overlooked.
Cline, Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Reba, the Judds and Twain -- all covered in the medley - were often referred to as the “queen of country music” in their respective eras.
That is Underwood’s realm today. She’s occupying the throne not only with her songs and ability to sing them, but with a show that’s going to be hard for an artist of any genre to match.