TAMPA — It was right around the time Carrie Underwood took to the skies in a flying blue pickup truck for a metallic cover of Take Me Home, Country Roads when I had a rather startling realization: Cowgirl is smarter than I thought.
Up to that point in her nearly two-hour show at a sold-out St. Pete Times Forum on Monday, the 27-year-old pride of Checotah, Okla., often seemed lost on a mondo coliseum-shaped stage. Her audience patter had all the pep and originality of an Amway sales pitch. And her new material, from latest album Play On, failed to do much for the sold-out crowd of 12,024.
It was looking bleak. The bestselling American Idol alum of all time has grown increasingly duller in five years of fame, a perilous position for someone who wasn't exactly Joan Jett in the first place.
Part of the problem is that Underwood has been wildly overshadowed by both Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift, fellow country-pop stars who are far more talented, aggressive and, to be brutally honest, interesting.
But give credit to Underwood — a fine singer of good songs (I Know You Won't), a caterwauler of boring ones (So Small) — for recognizing she needs a li'l help in the panache department. Wisely, she's taken a cue from Dolly Parton. Go gaudy, baby! There's no shame in shamelessness!
From wearing an electric dress that projected intergalactic 'splosions (while singing power ballad Change) to riding high on a swing dangling from a fake tree (while singing Just a Dream, a song about a woman losing her soulmate in the war), Underwood paid little mind to matching song with special effect. Just throw it out there and hope it entertains the masses!
If it wasn't the most musically sound show, at least it was likably goofy. Backed by an eight-piece band, she wailed Cowboy Casanova while wearing an unflattering tuxedo. She shredded a guitar for Some Hearts (whether her ax was actually plugged in wasn't the point). On Mama's Song, yet another milquetoast new cut, she sat at a spinning piano as fog suitable for a werewolf movie rolled in.
And finally, for such show-closing songs as Last Name, Before He Cheats and Songs Like This, Underwood — wrapped up for most of the night — unveiled her greatest weapons: her legs. Nothing wrong with that, of course. As Dolly would tell her: When you got 'em, flaunt 'em.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.