Carrie Underwood put on a clinic in high-powered, emotive and consistently in-tune singing at First Niagara Center on Tuesday.
You can criticize Underwood on aesthetic grounds, but that’s about it. Her performance before a mostly full First Niagara Center was flawless.
Unless you consider performing generic pop-country to be a flaw. In that case, it was plenty flawed.
To be fair, Underwood and her band weren’t really playing generic pop-country the whole night. They spent more than half of the show offering their spin on ’80s hair-rock in the Bon Jovi mode. This is not necessarily a criticism. Underwood is a seriously great rock singer.
It’s a good thing Underwood has the sort of pipes, power and presence that can cut through a high-decibel mix, because she opened with four Bon Jovi-esque bangers in a row.
I don’t care if you were wearing a cowboy hat or not – you might as well have been wearing Joe Elliott’s chisel-shredded jeans, because this was straight up mullet rock.
Killer mullet-rock, I might add.
From the moment she arrived on the in-the-round stage, atop something that looked like a three-layer birthday cake, Underwood was in ridiculously good voice.
“Renegade Runaway” came first, and both band – three guitarists, a keyboardist, bassist, drummer, and female harmony singer who proved to be Underwood’s best friend all night – and leader arrived ready for battle.
“Last Name/Something Bad” was a naughty bit of one-night-stand reportage, one of those “There might’ve been drinkin’ involved” tunes that is country music’s meat and potatoes.
This wasn’t country, though. This was straight-up arena-rock with pop leanings. Def Leppard, without the sugar and the pouring and all of that. Underwood crushed this tune.
“Undo It” and “Good Girl” followed in similar fashion, and by this point, we might’ve legitimately been wondering why Angus Young didn’t call Underwood instead of Axl Rose for AC/DC’s make-up dates. She could’ve crushed it.
“Church Bells,” a new tune from Underwood’s fifth release, “Storyteller,” offered the first true whiff of country music, what with its bow toward traditional values and its down-home feel.
The crowd ate this up, but then, the crowd ate everything up – they seemed to love the pop-rock stuff as much as they loved the country-leaning material.
The stage, a slowly revolving piece of impressive engineering that also featured moving risers and the opportunity for the musicians constituting the band to be lowered into their respective “cells” – this was creepy, in my opinion, because the implication was that the band was merely hired help, despite the fact that they did more than half of the heavy lifting – allowed Underwood to disappear for several costume changes.
Whenever she reappeared, the crowd went nuts, although Underwood, it must be said, never appeared to be entirely comfortable in her various bedazzled and shoulder-padded outfits. One sensed a woman more at home in boots, jeans and a killer top, or maybe a Skynyrd T-shirt, just dying to get out.
Underwood got all “Aw, Shucks” on us when she confessed to what seems like a genuine love for the work of Dolly Parton. She then absolutely nailed “I Will Always Love You,” fully inhabiting very note, as if born for the purpose.
The downside? Too many songs that sounded interchangeable, in key, tempo, construction and emotional dynamics.
Underwood is a superior singer. We should expect from her something at least resembling superior music. But what we got on Tuesday, we could’ve gotten elsewhere, perhaps without the jaw-droppingly awesome singing. It was hard to get a sense of who Underwood is, aside from an incredible singer. Perhaps that’s a hangover from her reality show singing-star era.
When you’re on television, singing other people’s songs, the brief is simply to sing well and look good. On the concert stage, that doesn’t translate quite as well. We need to know you’re feeling something other than the rush of adulation.
Regardless, Underwood seemed to give her fans what they wanted – a run through her biggest hits, with a slew of new songs at the top of the set, a thrilling stage show, and a pristine singing voice.
Rising country star Easton Corbin opened the evening with what can only be called a tepid set. He played his hits – “A Little More Country Than That,” “Baby Be My Love Song,” “John Deere Green” – but despite a band of virtuosic sidemen and a sympathetic audience, failed to truly connect. Lyrics like “I wanna fall like the Carolina rain on your skin” probably didn’t help, although the assembled didn’t appear to be particularly averse to hideous cliches. I’m not sure what it was.
Perhaps it was the fact that Corbin seemed to be going through the motions, giving Buffalo exactly the same show he gave whatever city he was in the previous night. Maybe we’re all getting a little sick of this kind of treatment.