Because MJ is awesome, she snagged some tickets for Tuesday night’s IHeartRadio concert by Carrie Underwood, giving a bunch of blog regulars the rare chance to see the arena headlining and not-quite-so-regional-anymore superstar in a tiny venue. This is my story from the night.
The Scene: The PC Richard & Son Theater in New York City
Who: Carrie Underwood, Mark Childers (bassist, musical director), Ed Eason (guitarist), Jamelle Fraley (backup singer), Garrett Goodwin (percussionist), Johnathan Hamby (keyboardist), Jimmy Herman (fiddler/mandolin player/backup singer), Chad Jeffers (banjoist/steel guitar & dobro player), Shawn Tubbs (guitarist)
The Crowd: A pretty mixed crowd, probably about a 55-45 or 60-40 split favoring females, dominated by people in their 20s and 30s but a good number of middle aged people too. Also in attendance: Gary Overton, chairman/CEO of Sony Nashville, plus other Sony Nashville and IHeartRadio staff.
A couple hundred people stuffed into a tiny venue. A local CHR/Pop DJ trying to pump up the crowd by doing a bad impression of a Southern hick (yeah). A set list ranging from new songs that had never been performed publicly before to a cover song Carrie hadn’t performed in years. It was unexpectedly the night for the unexpected.
Carrie’s usually had some patterns as far as what she performs early in an album cycle: she sticks to the single and a couple other focus tracks for TV/online appearances that allow her to play more than one song. And so I figured we would get a similar set list as those who watched Carrie’s Live On Letterman performance the previous night. I could see the night’s set list taped to the stage floor, but despite several “go gadget go” commands to extend my neck and get a better look, I couldn’t read it. Apparently I was going to have to actually wait and hear this concert play out to know what was going to happen, but I also thought I already knew.
Things were going to plan when Carrie’s band played the introduction to “Two Black Cadillacs”. I wanted to hear that one live but I knew they had done the same thing the night before to start out Carrie’s Live On Letterman performance, only to move right into “Good Girl” instead. Except this night, just like she did with her fourth album, Carrie broke the pattern. She launched right into the Southern gothic tale of a wife and a mistress conspiring to punish the man who was cheating on them. New song, performed live in public for the first time! If there’s a song on Blown Away I can’t really imagine anybody else in the industry right now singing other than Carrie, it’s “Two Black Cadillacs”. Her voice is pure country and so is the story, but the song has a rock power ballad feel without fitting the structure of your typical power ballad, and it comes together into a morality tale gone mad. The live version of the song has more active percussion work that makes the chorus feel more uptempo, and there were no first song/first time performing the song jitters here. Check out a clip of most of the song here courtesy Joyed:
Those of us who have followed Carrie since Idol (or watched her co-host the CMAs with Brad Paisley) know she has a dry and wry sense of humor. That was on display in her chatter with the crowd. After finishing “Two Black Cadillacs” she gave the crowd a lookover and chuckled, commenting that they’d told her that they would stuff 200 people into this space and she didn’t believe them at the time. Later, she would encourage us to groove as much as we’d like before conceding that would be difficult considering we were smooshed up against people we didn’t know. Throughout the night, she stuck to random and spontaneous musings, like when she asked us to tell her band how much we love them, but then said not too much because their wives and girlfriends might have a problem with that, and when she claimed the rain during her Good Morning America performance (that ended right after she was done performing there) was something they’d brought in specially for the Blown Away album. You can check out the full banter from the show courtesy Joyed:
Carrie followed “Two Black Cadillacs” with a couple of hits from previous albums that helped establish the range of moods and styles Carrie’s music covers. Country rocker “Last Name” was the second song in the set and had the crowd singing along to its hard bluesy groove, and Carrie really dug into the humorous, against-type lyrics of the song (which she cowrote with frequent collaborators Hillary Lindsey and Luke Laird). That was followed by the country/pop midtempo “Wasted”, a song about moving forward from bad situations in life that lets Carrie go from storytelling in the verses to her signature belting in the chorus.
At this point, Carrie informed the crowd that she was going to slow things down a touch, and talked about how she related to her new song “Thank God For Hometowns” because she remembered growing up in Checotah, Oklahoma and being one of those kids who was convinced she lived in the most boring town ever and wanted to get out. She chuckled that everybody probably feels that way about their hometowns but I don’t know if all the New Yorkers in the audience were really relating to that sentiment. The nice thing about this song is how clearly we could hear Carrie’s voice on a more stripped down ballad performance. Video courtesy BinaRox23
The crowd was ready when Carrie said she was going to rev it back up and she delivered with “Undo It”. The stuttering “uh”s and the na-na-nas are tailor-made for singalongs, and the crowd was belting the song out even before the breakdown where Carrie encouraged our involvement. The audience participation kicked up even higher for “Good Girl”, especially on the verses and the “you better get to gettin on your goodbye shoes” line. I’m pretty sure the audience clapped along in the correct time, if I do say so myself! Carrie has admitted what a challenging song this is for her to sing, but for the fourth time in two days, she proved she’s got the rangy, fast-paced, zig-zag show of song in hand. She sounded awesome without sacrificing audience connection.
Carrie took the tempo back down by introducing a favorite song, one she doesn’t think she’ll ever take out of her set: her first country single “Jesus Take The Wheel”. I’ve snarked on the song itself many times, but what I always come back to is that something about this song matched to Carrie and her voice works – she commits to the song and story without being over the top about it, and in her voice, an overly stretched metaphor becomes a believable story about a person desperately seeking and finding her faith. You know that cliche you sometimes hear from industry people about finding the right song for the right person at the right time? That’s “Jesus Take The Wheel” and Carrie back in 2005. I don’t think it would’ve worked for anybody else.
At this point, Carrie started talking to the crowd about how many who have performed on that stage have pulled out a cover song. The crowd immediately started murmuring some guesses when she said she was going to pull an old one out of the vault. I think I heard a few “Sweet Child Of Mine” and “Paradise City” guesses around me, especially after Carrie said she was going to need a giant swig of water for this one. Carrie cut off the intro saying she wanted to keep us guessing, and there was quite the collective “Ooooooh!” when the band played the first few chords of “Alone”. She chuckled and then dove into the song.
At this point Carrie had already been hitting pretty much every note in a rangy, challenging set with different tempos, moods, tones, and sounds. So the fact that she was nailing the G5s in this song at full belt (notes that weren’t in her original Idol performance because her shorter version excluded them) was almost something you could take for granted. But there was a maturity and sensuality in a 29 year old married Carrie performing this song, there was more yearning in the cry in her voice, and most of all, the presence of the performer on stage was much more intense than what we remember of the 22 year old with big teased out hair and Farmbot tendencies. Check out Carrie’s “Alone” performance here courtesy Joyed:
It didn’t take long for Carrie to break character when she was done singing the song in what turned out to be a cute moment: she shared a celebratory laugh with her guitarist Ed Eason and revealed the crowd he’d mouthed an approving “yeahhhhh” to her. They seemed to be laughing at themselves as Carrie replied “Right backatcha buddy!” But you could tell Carrie and her band took pride in nailing that one.
After Carrie’s intro to “Thank God For Hometowns” had gotten more of a passive “isn’t that sweet” reaction from the crowd, it would’ve been reasonable to expect the crowd not to be that inspired when Carrie said she was about to get as redneck as she’s able. Except that there were apparently a lot of people with hillbilly bones because people started whooping it up with excitement. The vibe in the crowd seemed to have gone from the sense that this was a fun, quality show to the sense we were really seeing something special once “Alone” kicked in, and Carrie used that to take us on quite the country ride with the next song “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun”. It’s a witty, clever, catchy hoedown of a song that Carrie has a lot of fun with on stage, and the crowd was clapping and bouncing right along with her. The song also became a showcase for Carrie’s awesome band, with her fiddle player Jimmy Herman and guitarist Shawn Tubbs trading instrumental solos for significant parts of the song. Jimmy had already gotten a little showcase with the outro of “Wasted” too. Check out video of Carrie performing “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun” courtesy JackieH10:
At this point Carrie announced they were about to play the final song of the set, and of course you had the usual “awwwwh” from the crowd. But at least the show was going to close with an obvious crowd favorite: males and females alike joined Carrie with all the gusto we could muster for “Before He Cheats”. Listening to “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun” and “Before He Cheats” back to back you realize Carrie’s got a surprising knack for songs that match humor with sinister, turning the table type themes. The fact that they’re not what you’d expect to hear from an inspirational song-loving Barbiebot fits the turning the table theme even better.
And, that was my main takeaway from the show. We always have these discussions about Idols knowing who they are as artists and how Idols sometimes have a harder time figuring out how to balance their versatility with the need to have an artistic identity. Carrie’s had 4 albums to work that out and based on the new album and her setlist Tuesday, she’s committed to maintain the core of who she is as a person and artist through some of her songs but she’s just as committed to letting her imagination take her places the core of who she is is least likely to go. So, “Jesus Take The Wheel”/”Wasted”/”Thank God For Hometowns” speak to the core of who Carrie is, but “Last Name”/”Two Black Cadillacs”/”Before He Cheats” tweak that, and those 3 songs feel like more of a journey knowing the core of who Carrie is. As far as the questions of Carrie crossing over from country into pop, the message from both the new album and Carrie’s IHeartRadio set is that she’s got her country core that is the defining base of who she is but that won’t stop her from sometimes taking her country core to sounds you wouldn’t expect.
Set Highlights: “Two Black Cadillacs”, “Alone”, “Good Girl”, “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun”, “Before He Cheats”
P.S. Lots of credit to the IHeartRadio staffers at the show, they were polite and moved people along very efficiently so the show started on time. MJ’s contact there was especially nice.
And on a side note, the original plan was to try to touch base with videographer Joyed — the plan was a fail, but I was lucky enough to get to meet her a couple days later for coffee, at which point we discovered that we had been standing next to each other at the concert the whole time. Somehow we didn’t poke each other’s eyes out with our awesome dance moves. Or, maybe we got along because we didn’t break out our awesome dance moves?