After floating over the crowd on a pink floral swing, Carrie Underwood gently landed on a small platform, picked up a guitar and began to sing “Two Black Cadillacs,” a dark ballad about two women who exact murderous revenge on a cheating man.
Following that ominous number, Underwood seamlessly transitioned to a vastly different theme — her Savior. The singer gave her congregation of 20,000 a sermon about the importance of being nice to one another and lifting each other up. She then sang one of her earliest hits, the soul-searching “Jesus Take the Wheel,” before performing a soul-stirring chorus of “How Great Thou Art.”
Seven songs later, Underwood was donning a black leather Guns N’ Roses jacket and channeling her inner Axl Rose with a cover of “Welcome to the Jungle.”
She has 25 CMT Awards, 16 Academy of Country Music awards and nine Country Music Association awards — not to mention eight Grammys — but after a remarkably versatile show in Salt Lake City Thursday night, it would be a disservice to say Underwood is solely a country artist.
She’s so much more.
The shocking versatility of Carrie Underwood
Throughout her nearly two-hour set, Underwood’s music had hints of country, gospel, pop, soul, jazz, blues and hard rock. One song would mimic Dolly Parton’s soft, lilting style, and the next would elicit a rasp that would’ve been right at home with Axl and his cronies. One minute the arena felt like a small chapel and the next it was a full on rock show, complete with Underwood pounding out an unexpected drum solo.
It’s a conglomeration of her many influences. Underwood, an Oklahoma native, grew up on gospel and country, but she recently told Rolling Stone she’s always been “mesmerized” by Rose’s vocal style and has spent a lot of time trying to emulate it. Earlier this year, she even convinced Rose to join her at the Stagecoach Festival. A few months later, Guns N’ Roses reciprocated and invited Underwood onstage for a show in London.
It’s a shocking versatility, and Underwood doesn’t hold back. In Salt Lake City, she rose from beneath the stage and hit the ground running. She threw her body and soul into each song — from the first note of her opening number, “Good Girl,” to the middle of her set with the emotional “Cry Pretty,” which earned her a standing ovation before she even hit the last note, to the final chord of her closer, “Before He Cheats.”
With a voice like that, you don’t need much else to entertain a crowd.
But Underwood’s voice is just one part of the equation.
More than a voice
Underwood’s live show is a spectacle — a glittery surface that belies the gritty nature of many of her songs.
In a similar vein to Kiss, the singer channels her hard rock side with pink streamers, fire, sparks and elaborate aerial contraptions to move her across the arena. Her several outfit changes — from a sparkly ensemble to a traditional Western getup to a leather jacket — mirror the fact that she is no one-trick pony.
To make a long story short: You can’t put Carrie Underwood in a box.
She puts on a staggering production, and you can’t help but marvel at how she does this night after night. It’s as physically demanding as it is vocally, and she doesn’t give herself much time to rest — anytime she leaves the stage is for an outfit change.
But there is a little give and take with this kind of production. Underwood provides a stunning visual component that is impossible to glean from an album. But the intensity of her show means the nuances of her music — like the storytelling quality and dynamics that are so exposed on her recordings — get a little lost. For the most part, Underwood performed at the same volume for two hours. It’s an impressive volume, though, and at times it was still hard to hear her, so she needed to be loud.
The set list appears to be largely the same from show to show. Arena shows are generally well-oiled machines, and considering all of the intricacies of Underwood’s production — including specific projections that go with each song — it would be hard to substantially deviate. But the singer still manages to create unique moments with her fans, like opening an envelope and revealing to a couple in the audience that they would be having a baby girl (she encouraged them to name that girl Carrie).
A proposal for Carrie Underwood
When recently describing her newest album, “Denim and Rhinestones,” the singer said in a statement: “You have these things that are great on their own and then you put them together and they just fit.”
The same can be said for Underwood’s live shows. The way she performs, you may find yourself wondering why “Welcome to the Jungle” and “How Great Thou Art” aren’t paired together more often.
In the last four years, Underwood has released two country-pop albums, Christmas music and a gospel record. When her “Denim and Rhinestones” tour wraps up, Underwood should hurry to the studio to record a rock album.
Based on her reception in Salt Lake City, it might just work.