When Carrie Underwood won "American Idol" a mere three years ago, she was a blandly pretty singer with a blandly pretty voice and a stage presence so robotic than some Internet wags snarked that there must have been a flaw in her emotion chip. She's gotten an upgrade. After Wednesday night's sold-out show at Agganis Arena, even her detractors might be hard-pressed to deny that Underwood is a star.
The music might have been arena country, but there was little doubt that the singer knew how to work an arena. She came out guns a-blazing with the spirited "Flat on the Floor," and she remained keenly engaged through the entire show. With its churning verses and soaring chorus, "Some Hearts" came across as almost as much a first-pumper as her encore cover of "Paradise City," which her band played straight as she pitched her own siren wail against our ingrained memories of Axl Rose and came out just barely behind.
Underwood also managed to demonstrate the personality that she apparently spent an entire television season suppressing. Her introduction to the life-on-the-road lament "Don't Forget to Remember Me" was an endearing ramble, and she sheepishly apologized to the men in the audience who'd been dragged along by their wives and girlfriends. And when she found out that 5-year-old Sarah, brought onstage to sing "All-American Girl," didn't know the words, Underwood didn't miss a beat in replying, "I don't either, I just make stuff up."
She injected that freewheeling but honed energy into her material. "Crazy Dreams," "The More Boys I Meet," and others were like Faith Hill with a better voice and a bit more light and fire in her eyes, and she was all spitfire sass on "Last Name" and "Before He Cheats."
Best of all was "I Know You Won't," a superior broken-heart ballad that was less country than it was a more clear-eyed and less self-pitying cousin of "All By Myself." It was given color by the same sharp edge that gives Underwood's voice its twang, and it almost came as no surprise when she actually rose above the stage on a satin box as the song reached its climax. Preceded by two lines (but only two lines) of her wan "Idol" coronation ballad "Inside Your Heaven," it was a stark reminder of just how far Underwood has come.
Little Big Town effectively warmed up the crowd for Underwood despite never quite hitting the brass ring itself. The galvanizing harmonies were full because they were overpowering, not because the voices were especially well-balanced, and singers Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Roads Schlapman were Nashville glam, but their stage presence didn't have much spark.