A collective gasp rippled through a swath of Carrie Underwood fans at Time Warner Cable Arena just after 8:30 p.m. Saturday, as the radiant blonde with flawless skin and teeth whiter than your dentists emerged through the curtains, looking every bit the star.
iPhones came flying out of pockets and purses, women spilled drinks trying to get closer to her, husbands and boyfriends remarked on the former reality TV stars beauty.
Emily Maynard of The Bachelorette fame was still posing for photos and trying to find her seat when the lights went down eight minutes later, and the nights scheduled star took her place in the center of the arena.
For the next hour and 45 minutes, Underwood owned the crowd (which had also been warmed up by 21-year-old Hunter Hayes, anointed CMA Awards new artist of the year just two nights earlier). The 22-song set showcased the country singers arresting pipes, supported by a seven-piece band and bolstered by an elaborate stage setup that created visual effects evoking her Oklahoma roots.
The central theme? A looming tornado (the tour, named for her new CD, is titled "Blown Away"). So the show opened with a 75-foot video screen projecting a clip of Underwood running toward a twister; the real thing eventually emerged from "under" a house, a la "The Wizard of Oz," and charged into the uptempo "Good Girl" - the first single off of "Blown Away" - while wearing a ruffled skirt of feathers.
Underwood, 29, is of course one of just a handful of "American Idol" winners who have experienced legitimate success, and along with Kelly Clarkson is among only two who appear guaranteed to have lasting, prosperous careers. Which makes sense: Both possess not only natural likability and multi-genre appeal, but also live voices that could end wars.
Her set Friday included eight songs from "Blown Away," plus most of her hits, from ballads like "Jesus, Take the Wheel" and "Wasted" to sassier stuff like "Last Name" and "Cowboy Casanova."
Though her Southern accent still comes and goes (and though she still spends too much time wagging her fingers at fans), Underwood was much looser and more confident on stage than when I saw her open for Keith Urban at the arena 41/2 years ago.
She also had much more to do. Four costume changes, for one. A constantly evolving set that featured three large video screens on hydraulics that rose and fell over the stage, sometimes supplementing the 75-foot backdrop video screen, other times connecting to allow Underwood to appear to be dueting with Brad Paisley (on "Remind Me") or in a bedroom (on "I Know You Won't").
And mid-show, she and three bandmates - including bass player Mark Childers of Charlotte - stepped onto a glass-bottomed mini-stage that floated out over the floor section for five songs, closing with the reggae-tinged, summer-loving "One Way Ticket." For that, four of the largest beach balls you'll ever see were released into the crowd.
Ironically, the sleepiest song was one she proudly introduced as one she'd penned, "Temporary Home," while the one that seemed to fire her up the most was written before she was born.
During her cover of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," Underwood channeled every ounce of her inner rock star, bouncing, prancing, gyrating, whipping her hair back and forth, and cutesy-ing it up by censoring herself on the "Standin' in front just shakin' your (blank)" line.
It was almost - almost - enough to make the people in Section 114 forget they were sitting a few yards away from Emily Maynard.
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