Over the weekend, Carrie Underwood was forced to postpone one concert and graciously vowed to donate the proceeds from another to charity because she felt she hadn’t performed sufficiently because of a pesky cold.
At her sold-out Wednesday gig at The Arena at Gwinnett Center, the lovely blonde country-pop singer soldiered through what was clearly a difficult performance for her. But, while she could be seen coughing frequently between songs – and even during them – constantly sipping from a bottle of water and sounding increasingly husky-voiced whenever she addressed the crowd, her singing voice is such a brawny instrument that even sickness couldn’t quash it.
For nearly two hours, Underwood and her airtight eight-piece band powered through a super-slick production that featured five costume changes (some so hideous that only someone as comely as Underwood could pull them off), more than 20 songs, a floating stage and plenty of the singer’s soft-edged charm.
From “Good Girl” to “Wasted” to “I Told You So,” Underwood’s tunes don’t always sound like music that would satisfy country purists, but thematically, they tend to follow the old-school storylines of done-me-wrong weepers and stand-your-ground empowerment.
Underwood – an “American Idol” vet who long ago surpassed any need to still associate herself with the show (though she still rightly credits it for changing her life) – has a knack for infusing her songs with drama. Her current hit, “Two Black Cadillacs,” isn’t her strongest work, but the addition of a wind machine and video of dark skies looming over close-ups of the starring vehicles injected a cinematic flair that elevated the song’s mediocrity. Likewise, “Last Name” strutted along sassily, with banjo strains working comfortably alongside rock guitar.
In her seven-year career, Underwood, who turns 30 in March, has amassed a string of more than 15 hits (as well as sold more than 13 million albums in the U.S.), but there are a few that will always be associated with her – such as “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” her first number one which prompted one of several singalongs from the audience on Wednesday.
During her last tour (which played Gwinnett in October 2010), Underwood took a ride around the arena rafters on the back of a pickup truck. For this “Blown Away” outing, she and some of her band members went airborne over the floor seats in her own countrified hovercraft – a floating stage ringed with twig-like railing.
She’s been doing this routine since the tour started in September, so she’s obviously comfortable with the twists and twirls that physics applies to the apparatus. But kudos to her for belting out the sentimental ballad “Thank God for Hometowns” and the carefree, faux-reggae “One Way Ticket,” complete with confetti, beach balls and leis tossed into the crowd.
After her fourth costume change, a bizarre sparkly spandex outfit that looked like “Mad Max” meets “Sex and the City,” Underwood was joined by opening act Hunter Hayes on “Leave Love Alone” and then, virtually, by Brad Paisley for their duet, the bittersweet “Remind Me.”
But an undeniable highlight of the set came with the slamming double punch of “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” and “Before He Cheats,” still Underwood’s crown jewel – a snarling warning that should scare the bejesus out of any man pondering deceitful behavior.
At her young age, Underwood has accomplished so much – including the admiration of one Loretta Lynn – yet it’s easy to root for her, waiting to see just how long her star will burn.
The aforementioned Hayes impressed during his 40-minute opening slot, which featured plenty of his admirable guitar playing as well as his angelic sideways grins.
With a couple of hits on his resume, the 21-year-old Louisiana native really didn’t have to do much except churn those out and look pretty for the screaming girls in the crowd. But he took his stage time several steps further, addressing the crowd with low-key graciousness in between cranking out “Faith to Fall Back On,” the swoony “Somebody’s Heartbreak” and a blues-rock version of “Winter Wonderland.”
Hayes hasn’t had great success on live TV, often appearing nervous and singing off-key. But in his own element, none of that awkwardness appeared, especially when he was ripping out guitar solos like a mini Keith Urban or sliding behind the piano to croon his breakthrough hit, “Wanted.”
Given his current “it kid” status – and three Grammy nominations – expect to see an abundance of Hayes next year.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene