I have a lot of positive things to say about Carrie Underwood’s presentation of the “Storyteller Tour: Stories in the Round,” which – from a logistical standpoint – is one of the more ambitious concerts ever attempted inside the uptown venue formerly known as Time Warner Cable Arena.
Let’s get the negative out of the way first, though. (And to be clear, it’s a complaint about the host city, not about the headliner.)
When Underwood emerged from beneath the sprawling stage for the first time on Sunday night, rising to 20 feet above the Spectrum Center floor and appearing to be perched atop a three-tiered lighting structure, the singer found herself in an unfamiliar situation: belting out “Renegade Runaway” in front of a lot of empty seats.
Now, of the 79 “Storyteller” shows Underwood has done since launching the tour last January, dozens have been sellouts. Billboard ranked it as the No. 1 country tour for the first half of 2016 and Forbes recently called it one of the 10 hottest tours of the fall. Earlier this month, she sold out arenas in Des Moines, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D., and her Madison Square Garden concert on Tuesday also is sold out.
Charlotte, meanwhile, struggled to fill an upper level that already had more curtains than a JCPenney – and this despite the fact that multiple lower-level sections were not open for this particular show.
Believe me, it’s not just Carrie Underwood. Charlotte, for whatever reason, has consistently proven to be a rather lame city when it comes to showing support for big-name concert tours. (Selena Gomez, Imagine Dragons and Ariana Grande come to mind as other shows that sold out many other arenas but inexplicably did poorly here.)
Ever wonder why Kanye West would pick a place like Columbia, S.C., in December over us, or why Roger Waters would snub Charlotte for a smaller city like Greensboro next summer? This is why. Because we go “Oh, not on a school night,” or we say “I can’t afford tickets,” or ... I mean, who knows which excuses people are using these days?
OK, rant over. Now on to the good stuff that the thousands and thousands of fans who did show up on Sunday night got to see – and hear.
First off, whoever directed this spectacle for Underwood had all kinds of tricks up their sleeves. During “Good Girl,” her eight band members played on a center stage that rotated like a lazy Susan. During “Heartbeat,” they receded into an orchestra pit so Underwood could shine alone atop a riser. She stood atop a sparks-spewing jukebox for “Cowboy Casanova,” sang among a dozen huge pieces of white fabric that billowed 15 feet in the air thanks to powerful blowers during “Blown Away,” and was bathed in purple, red and pink fog as she belted out “Two Black Cadillacs.”
The show, truth be told, was not so much “in the round” as it was all around: The stage and its network of branches stretched from end to end and side to side of the floor, giving her the freedom to put the action and the attention wherever she wanted to on an area the size of a basketball court.
So, while there were certainly stretches when Underwood was on the opposite side of the arena with her back to you, everyone in the general-admission floor section and in the lower part of the lower level eventually found themselves with multiple opportunities for deliciously Instagram-able cellphone photos.
And although our cavernous arena can be a tricky challenge for even the sharpest engineers, Underwood’s team nailed it from the outset, allowing nothing to get in the way of her bright, airy voice. This was true whether she was rocking out with openers Easton Corbin and The Swon Brothers for a foot-stomping cover of Alabama’s “Mountain Music” or slowing it down with her moving ballad “Jesus, Take the Wheel.”
Underwood also briefly showed off her other musical talents over the course of the evening, pounding on a pair of kettle drums at the end of “Church Bells,” hitting the harmonica during “Choctaw County Affair,” and strumming an acoustic guitar during “Smoke Break.”
But if her “Storyteller” show was short on something, it was actual stories: Underwood stopped the show just twice over the course of 105 minutes and 22 songs.
Once it was to talk briefly about motherhood as she sat on a white grand piano. “My mom, she’s my best friend – I talk to her every single day. And I never realized how hard this mom stuff was until I became a mom myself, and I feel like I appreciate her so much more,” said the 33-year-old, in dedicating “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted” to “all the moms out there.” (She and her husband, NHL star Mike Fisher, have a son who will turn 2 in February.)
The only other time Underwood said more than a few words between songs was to gush about Dolly Parton while setting up an understated but ravishing rendition of her idol’s classic love song, “I Will Always Love You.”
“One voice that I definitely remember from a really young age, even before I knew anything about her, was the voice of Dolly Parton,” Underwood said. “The more I learned about her growing up, and the more I know now, the more I love her. She just – she’s Dolly. She is her own person. She’s not trying to be like anybody else. She’s an incredible singer and songwriter, vocalist, entertainer. She goes all over the world and sells out everywhere because everybody loves Dolly.”
The question is, can Dolly sell out Charlotte?
She’ll get a chance to try: Parton’s “Pure & Simple” tour is coming to the Spectrum Center on Saturday, Nov. 19. Place your bets...
Carrie Underwood’s set list
1. “Renegade Runaway”
2. “Last Name”/“Somethin’ Bad”
3. “Undo It”
4. “Good Girl”
5. “Church Bells”
6. “Cowboy Casanova”
8. “Jesus, Take the Wheel”
10. “Blown Away”
11. “Two Black Cadillacs”
12. “Dirty Laundry”
13. “Choctaw County Affair”
14. “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton cover)
15. “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted”
16. “Mountain Music” (Alabama cover) (with Easton Corbin and The Swon Brothers)
17. “Clock Don’t Stop”
18. “All-American Girl”
19. “Little Toy Guns”
20. “Before He Cheats”
21. “Smoke Break”
22. “Something in the Water”