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Review: Carrie Underwood goes full rock star in ambitious Storyteller Tour at Tampa's Amalie Arena

16

November

If you’re gonna sing like a rock star – and Carrie Underwood has never had a problem in that department – then you might as well do it on a stage that looks like it was built for one.

That was the theme of Underwood’s Storyteller Tour, which sold out Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Wednesday, packing nearly two dozen hits into an overpowering set that felt a whole lot more like arena rock than a country bar.

One big reason was the stage, a span of circular platforms that spanned the arena floor, allowing Underwood to prowl and meander to her high heels’ content, giving every seat in the arena a pretty good eyeful. In the lower bowl, it was as clear a view of a headliner as you’re ever going to get.

But such a stage won’t get you far if you don’t know how to work it. And 11 years after winning American Idol, Underwood still does. In an era of country music loaded with young female talent – Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini, take your pick – Underwood alone remains the one with the voice and ambition to go full pop star, unleashing the full force of her roaring band and singing like a woman ready to take the wheel back from Jesus.

After rising from from center stage on an LED platform, compact and composed as a tiny blond cake topper, Underwood unleashed her Oklahoma county-fair voice on a string of driving singles – Renegade Runaway, a mash-up of Last Name and Somethin’ Bad, Undo It, Good Girl and Church Bells. It was an opening run designed to overpower you, to keep you on your feet, and it worked. Even after Underwood left for her first costume change of the night, she returned with the band still revved up, rocking angelic white fringe and belting out Cowboy Casanova from the top of an oversized jukebox.

Underwood soon hit us with her ballads (the excellent, tumbling-towards-ecstacy Heartbeat; the open-hearted Jesus, Take the Wheel) and some that skewed a little more Nashville (the twin fiddles screaming on Wasted). On All-American Girl, she toted a “Carrie Cam” around the stage, pointing it at the audience so they could see themselves on the big screen.

And though Underwood never had to do much beyond strutting her stuff and singing her sequins off, she kept shifting the set toward overdrive -- pounding drums on Church Bells, strumming a guitar on Smoke Break, tooting a pretty mean harmonica on Choctaw County Affair. Even a cover of an all-time country classic, Alabama’s Mountain Music, got knocked up a notch with cameos from openers Easton Corbin and the Swon Brothers.

More than once, the set felt like a creation of a veteran arena rock act like U2. The ambitious stage and lighting had a little to do with that, but so did the aggressive arrangements of her band, especially guitarist Ed Eason, chiming out epic, propulsive riffs on Blown Away, Two Black Cadillacs, Clock Don’t Stop, Smoke Break and Something In the Water.

All this scope and scale was a little surprising, considering the tour's name: “The Storyteller Tour.” Named for Underwood's latest album, it's a title that implies quietude and intimacy, which is something Underwood never really delivered – with two exceptions.

The first was a cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, kicked off a cappella and never really exploding far beyond that – it was just earnest, unadorned, heartfelt and honest, a tribute to a woman Underwood said she’s always hoped to emulate.

The second was the ballad What I Never Knew I Always Wanted, a tribute to her 1-year-old son Isaiah. As she sang perched on a white piano (total rock star move, BTW), the screens overhead scrolled through intimate photos and clips of her son and husband, NHL player Mike Fisher, from pregnancy and ultrasound pics to home videos.

If you could break your gaze long enough to glance over at Underwood, you saw that she, too, was staring up at the screen as she sang. It was a moment of quiet vulnerability on a stage befitting U2, a reminder that no matter how big Underwood gets, she’s still only 33, still writing the story of her life. Right now, she’s firmly in the rock star chapter. But there’s still a lot of story left to come.

-- Jay Cridlin

[Last modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2016 11:23pm]

    

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