Carrie Underwood with Hunter Hayes
The Blown Away Tour
December 1, 2012
There’s a desirable sweet spot in every big performer’s career where they finally have a large number of hits to fill out a two-hour show, a compelling enough current album to sustain audience interest between the hits, and the appropriate level of earned confidence to take some bold risks in staging and presentation.
Carrie Underwood just hit that sweet spot. Her Blown Away Tour hit Newark on Saturday, playing to an arena packed with fans of all ages. It’s an arena show, too, filled with pyrotechnics and
special effects and a backing band that shook the cheap seats on the more rocking numbers. Opening with “Good Girl”, Underwood tore through an opening section which included a healthy mix of hits from all four of her studio albums.
But the show didn’t hit its stride until the second section, when she surprised the audience with the appearance of a choir from local elementary school P.S. 22. They supported her in a touching rendition of “So Small” that lived up to its name, stripping the bombast from the studio recording and letting the lyric shine over the sweet harmonies that only bewilderingly talented tots can produce in unison. The arena felt as intimate as a sitting room as she sang “Temporary Home”, which seemed to have her on the verge of tears by the third verse.
After a few more hits, the show peaked with an ingenious third act that had Underwood floating above the audience on a moving platform. Why was it ingenious? It solved a few arena show dilemmas at once, keeping the entire audience riveted while the artist sang unfamiliar album cuts. At the point of the set list usually designed for bathroom breaks, Underwood had the entire arena on their feet, cheekily waving to and interacting with the audience members all around her, and even those directly under her. These are the benefits of a clear plexiglass floor, you see.
At times, the staging was a bit too ambitious. The video screens that were used so effectively for visual songs like “Two Black Cadillacs” were a glaring distraction for much of the show, with random patterns that looked more like late nineties Windows screen savers than anything else. Transitional interludes featured some interesting animation, but it was interrupted by glamour shots of Underwood, as if they were afraid we’d forget about her while she was changing costumes backstage. But the opening and closing projections centered around “Blown Away” were executed brilliantly, among the best I’ve seen in an arena show.
Vocally, Underwood was nearly flawless, never missing a note but occasionally losing her breath while she enthusiastically engaged the audience. At times, she seemed a little overwhelmed by her band, most notably during a painfully loud cover of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” When the arrangements were slower or simpler, with her voice accompanied by only a handful of instruments, she sounded better than I’ve ever heard a powerhouse vocalist sound in concert.
When you combine her precision with the very few liberties the band took with the studio arrangements, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an actual studio recording. She really is that good. She somehow elevated the fan favorite “I Know You Won’t” to staggering new heights, and that’s a song that seemed superhuman even as a studio recording. I repeat, she really is that good. But most impressive was when she revisited older tracks like “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Wasted”, and actually improved on them, showing how much she has grown in interpretive skill and vocal nuance since the beginning of her career.
Those hits from the first album, along with the pre-encore closer “Before He Cheats”, where absolutely the biggest crowd-pleasers, giving anecdotal evidence to the theory that Underwood’s greatest competition has been herself. Those early hits have overshadowed everything she’s done since, successful as she’s been. But I discovered something when she closed the show with “Blown Away.” The audience roared at the opening notes, after having been teased mercilessly with clips from the video all night. There was more energy and excitement during that performance than at any other moment. It’s her first career record in years.
Underwood was classy and thoroughly charming throughout. That light shines through even when her material’s at its darkest. It was a minor annoyance for me that I was surrounded by tweens, teens, and twenty-somethings that stood for the whole show and sang along with far too many songs. But seeing a whole row of those tweens in Carrie Underwood t-shirts, clearly at their first big concert and hanging on every word that their idol sang, I was struck with a deep appreciation for this artist. I’ve always been grateful that she respected the genre’s traditions and institutions, but I’m always worried about preserving the genre’s past. She’s also securing its future, as perhaps the only artist in country music history who can pack an arena that is equal parts tween, young adult, and the rest of us. In that sense, she just might be the most significant country artist of her time, in addition to being the flat-out best singer.
I missed the first couple of songs by opening act Hunter Hayes, but judging by the piercing adolescent screams that permeated the arena, he won’t be an opening act for much longer. I must say that he’s remarkably talented. I expected the country arrangements and the solid vocals, but his prowess with both the guitar and the piano took me by surprise. He’s somewhere between Keith Urban without the gravitas and Gary LeVox without the nasal drip. Hopefully, he’ll keep honing his songwriting skills and his audience will stick around as he develops. He’s got more promise than most of his contemporaries.
Carrie Underwood Set list:
I Told You So
Two Black Cadillacs
So Small (with P.S. 22 Student Choir)
Jesus, Take the Wheel
Get Out of This Town
Nobody Ever Told You
Thank God for Hometowns
Do You Think About Me
One Way Ticket
Flat on the Floor
Leave Love Alone (with Hunter Hayes)
Remind Me (with Brad Paisley via Video Screen)
Cupid’s Got a Shotgun
Before He Cheats
I Know You Won’t
“Come Wake Me Up” is the best composition that Rascal Flatts has tackled in a very long time, and the opening verse is a beautiful throwback to the sound of their best song to date, “I’m Movin’ On.”
Now, imagine if “I’m Movin’ On” had reached the chorus, and a bunch of strings and bombast and general loudness showed up. It would ruin the intimacy of the song, wouldn’t it?
That’s mostly what happens here. I stop at mostly because Gary LeVox has become so adept at the adult contemporary powerhouse vocals that he’s able to keep control of the proceedings, so the recording doesn’t end up a bust because Dann Huff couldn’t stop himself from 50mg generic viagra online being Dan Huff.
Huff’s relentless production keeps this from being the timeless recording that it should have been. But even under all the gloss, there’s an incredible lyric and a nuanced vocal performance. It’s still their best single in a long time, along with one of the better releases of 2012 from any artist. But if there’s ever a piano-only version of this, it will forever be in my rotation.
Written by Johan Fransson, Tim Larsson, Tobias Lundgren, and Sean McConnell
“Someone Like You” is going to be covered endlessly anyway. It’s already a standard.
That being said, it’s hard to hear it with fresh ears, especially when it’s not Adele singing it. But to David Nail’s credit, he keeps the simplicity of the original and doesn’t try to out-sing its originator. He sounds like a less nasal Gary LeVox, which sounds pretty good, indeed.
His cover doesn’t elevate the song or bring any new discoveries to the surface, but neither is necessary to justify it being covered. A great song sung well is good enough for me.
“Let It Rain” kicks off with Nail’s cheating character claiming he’s more crushed by the pain he’s caused his wife than by his own feelings of shame – but does anyone really believe that? The chorus is nothing if not a pity party, centering on a singular theme: “She don’t love me anymore.”
But it’s an effective pity party. Nail delivers the song with tortured self-loathing, using the shades of soul in his voice to wring out his emotion. His character may not garner any sympathy (“When the shades start coming down/The guilt you feel’s the last thing on your mind”), but his pain is believable, in a pathetic sort of way. Sarah Buxton’s earthy background vocals serve as a gorgeous complement to the rawness of his plea, though they’re a little difficult to make out against the bombastic production.
Then again, sweeping self-pity is exactly the kind of thing that calls for a dramatic, Gary LeVox-style arrangement. A power ballad with a purpose? I’ll bite.
A running narration of the most boring drive through town ever.
I realize they’re trying to go for something deep and meaningful here, but it sounds like little more than Bruce Springsteen at his most self-indulgent.
Maybe I’m too cynical, but I never did buy that the plastic bag floating in the wind was beauty personified, and I don’t buy that this particular train of thought has any larger significance. Certainly not enough to justify the wave of bombast that follows his arrival home, a volume of pomp and circumstance that would make Gary LeVox blush.
Four singles in, I had to ask a colleague of mine to explain why she’d said Need You Now was a good album. She corrected me. “I didn’t say it was good. I said, ‘It’s not bad.’” There’s a lot of distance between those two statements, she explained.
There’s the core of a good song idea here. Really. And he’s singing from the heart, clearly addressing this song to his late wife. It’s hard not to feel guilty criticizing this record.
But I’m gonna have to do it anyway. If I didn’t already know Gokey’s back story, I’d think he was just trying to imitate Rascal Flatts. Listen to the chorus, which he sings like it’s a carbon copy of the verse from “What Hurts the Most.” In that hit, it was “I’m not a-fraid to cry, every now, and again, even though, going on, with you gone, still upsets me.” In this song, it’s “I will laugh, I will cry, shake my fist, at the sky, but I will not say goodbye.”
The rhythm and delivery are identical. I’d cut him some slack if he had written this, but he didn’t. It was a trio of established songwriters that gave this song to an artist who doesn’t have the chops to sing it. In the end, this leaves Gokey sounding like a poor man’s Gary LeVox.
That might be the meanest thing I’ve ever written about anyone on this site.
Written by Chuck Cannon, Vicky McGehee, and Lari White
If an act’s musical identity can be distilled into five seconds, it may be the opening of “Praying For Daylight”, the debut single of Rascal Flatts and first cut on their chronologically arranged collection, Greatest Hits Volume 1. Before the music even comes in, we hear their distinctive harmonies. Gary LeVox’s nasally lead vocals were as prominent then as they are now, and are the common thread weaved throughout their first hits package. As time goes on, his vocals get more intense as they struggle to be heard over the increasingly bombastic production, but if you’re hooked on that sound from the get-go, you’ll probably love this package.
If you’re immune to his charms, the album’s much more of a mixed bag. As a hits collection, Greatest Hits Volume 1 manages to be definitive without being particularly distinctive, which is a reflection of the mediocrity that has become Rascal Flatts’ calling card. Much like Brooks & Dunn, the duo that has dominated the Vocal Duo category the same way Flatts has dominated Vocal Group, these guys have a lot of hits to their credit, but few of them are memorable.
“I Melt”, “My Wish”, “Stand”, “Mayberry.” All of them are here, but it’s hard to remember when they were around in the first place. On tracks like “Fast Cars and Freedom” and “Feels Like Today”, it’s understandable to think that you’re listening to a forgotten 80′s pop radio staple, until LeVox reaches for a high note and misses, and you’re reminded that C-list 80′s pop stars are among modern country’s most baffling muses.