by Aprille Hanson
While the crowd in Verizon Arena, North Little Rock, Ark., waited for headliner Carrie Underwood to kick off her “Storyteller Tour: Stories in the Round” on April 28, a D.J./break dancer/T-shirt gun-shooter asked if everyone was ready for the “queen of country music” to entertain us.
The statement was bold, even in a room full of Underwood fans. Reba held that title for years and even Faith Hill along with her hubby Tim McGraw were considered the queen and king of the genre. Then, there was of course Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, sliding nicely into that royal role before ultimately crashing and burning their romance.
So when someone says queen of a genre, it’s a hefty title to uphold. Underwood has built a career so far beyond her start on “American Idol” that most don’t even give that reality show fame a second thought. Her voice is consistently pure on awards shows, television specials, etc. that I was a little curious to see if that purity and captivating quality would translate to a live concert setting.
But before audiences got to see the spectacle, The Swon Brothers and Easton Corbin took the stage. The Swon Brothers have had minimal success after finishing third on NBC’s hit reality singing show “The Voice” in 2013. It would be easy to assume that Zach and Colton Swan may have gotten on the tour thanks to country star and ‘Voice’ judge Blake Shelton, but according to theboot.com, the singers have had a connection long before all three of them were famous, growing up just 10 minutes from each other. They did “these little country family shows together” according to Colton Swan, but lost touch after Underwood rose to fame. While their performances were not anything to call home about, their presence on the tour is notable. The brothers pointed out that Underwood typically has just one opening act.
Their approximately five-song set included their 2013 song “Later On” and Kings of Leon cover “Use Somebody.” It’s tough for smaller acts to be in the shadow of such a big star, but they managed to have fun despite the crowd being anxious for Underwood.
Easton Corbin was certainly the favorite opener, showing fans why he’s still relevant after his No. 1 hits “A Little More Country Than That” and “Roll With It” from his 2010 debut album. While his more recent songs (“Baby Be My Love Song,” “Yup”) have paled in comparison to his originals, Corbin has a distinctly southern drawl, missing from way too many of the Bro-Country artists today (*cough, Sam Hunt, *cough). It’s one of the reasons I believe he can stand out in sea of other Joes that look just like him and why his medley of songs he said influenced him as a youngster sounded great: “Check Yes or No,” George Straight; “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” Toby Keith and “Fiddle in the Band,” Alabama.
He closed his roughly 12 song set with 2013’s “All Over the Road,” a fun one for the whole crowd.
Underwood performed in the round for this tour, though the stage was hardly circular. As someone who has been to a lot of concerts at several arenas, the stage itself may have been the most impressive. The long, sprawling stage had various levels and entrances, with black rectangular tents being set up quickly toward the stage, allowing Underwood to sneak underneath undetected.
After AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blared through the arena, suspended round screens started to sink toward the stage, possibly masking the stage itself rising as Underwood soon immerged high on the platform to kick it off with “Renegade Runaway” the title track to her Storyteller album.
The song is high energy, very similar to “Cowboy Casanova,” which she performed on a raised jukebox, an ode to the line “He’s a good time Cowboy Casanova leaning up against the record machine.”
But first, she blazed through most of her high-energy songs: a medley of “Last Name” and “Somethin’ Bad,” her 2014 duet with Miranda Lambert, which appeared on Lambert’s album Platinum; “Undo It,” “Good Girl” and “Church Bells.” It was an interesting approach because typically artists will intertwine their “let’s pump the crowd up” songs with their ballads. But Underwood kept up the momentum, shooting off six songs like a machine gun before slowing us all down to perform the love song “Heartbeat,” her single from November. It was the most mesmerizing spectacle of the night, despite all the other special effects she threw at us, because her standing on the stage with red lighting along with the white sparkling dots from a disco ball that lit up every inch of that arena, it was like being under a blanket of stars.
If that wasn’t enough, she abruptly took us back in time to “Jesus, Take The Wheel.” I understand the song is 11 years old and may not be the one she’s known for as much, but it’s still quintessential in her discography. It’s why throwing it in the middle made gave me a bit of a double take, but regardless, she sang it with passion which I would imagine is a tough thing for artists when you’ve sang it likely on every tour. The surprise gem “Wasted,” also from her debut album Some Hearts, came next, which is all the love her debut got until the end of her set.
So after partying, slowing it down, it was time to take the audience down the dark alley of “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs,” both centering on killing someone. To simulate a tornado could prove difficult in an arena, but as Underwood sang her lungs off on lines like “Every tear-soaked whisky memory blown away” white sheer material blew up from the floor, dancing in the lights, making the whole atmosphere ominous like a storm.
When “Dirty Laundry,” a song from Storyteller came up, she had the screen show a video with some of the words from the song sprawling across when she sang them. I’ve seen at least one other artist in concert do that with a new song (Trisha Yearwood) which I think is a great idea -- it gives fans a chance to sing along to a song that’s obviously new and might not be as well known.
“Choctaw County Affair,” the twangiest song on Storyteller, Underwood showed off her harmonica skills, which was definitely an unexpected treat.
The most poignant moment of the night came from one of two covers she sang -- and no, it wasn’t “Fishin’ in the Dark,” a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band cover she brought her openers back on stage for, despite it being fun. It was her tribute to Dolly Parton with “I Will Always Love You” and although she could have belted out the more soulful ballad that Whitney Houston made it, Underwood sang it with a quiet reverence like the original.
The only song that rivaled that heartfelt moment was “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” from Storyteller. While it’s not a single and was probably brand new to many in the crowd, she explained how her life has been changed so much from her marriage (to hockey star Mike Fisher) and her baby son (one-year-old Isaiah). It was moving to see the intimate family photos across the screens as she sang.
She went on to perform “Clock Don’t Stop,” “Little Toy Guns” and “All-American Girl,” which she brought out her “Carrie Cam,” walking around with a video camera which displayed the crowd shots on her big screens.
She closed her primary set with “Before He Cheats” from Some Hearts, that life changing hit that propelled her to stardom. It was the only time really that the arena clearly could sing the words back to her, making it a magical moment for the fans.
She disappeared into the stage with a wave, but before too long, she popped back up to perform her popular “Smoke Break,” her first single off of Storyteller.
Her closing number went to “Something in the Water,” a single she co-wrote off of her Greatest Hits: Decade #1 album. It was a huge No. 1 for her, with added crossover appeal. It’s a little country, a little pop, but it’s all heart, talking about a person’s life changing after being Baptized. It was a fitting end because of its power and graceful vocals.
Underwood kept her energy up throughout her 22-song set, with minimal drag time for costume changes. Those were filled by some videos on the screen and teasing the instrumentals to some of the tracks on Storyteller, including “Mexico,” which she absolutely should have performed live. With a discography like hers, it’s hard to decide, but I think forgoing “Clock Don’t Stop” for something like “See You Again” or “Temporary Home” would have been more meaningful for her fans.
After following her since her blind audition from “American Idol” to now, seeing her live was a special opportunity. It’s arguable that she is in fact the overall queen in the genre but for that concert, the stage was her throne and she owned it.