Friday, October 8, 2010

Carrie Underwood concert review: Hollywood

A version of my review originally appeared in the Orange County Register and can be viewed below. Photo courtesy

Carrie Underwood, Billy Currington, Sons of Sylvia
Where: Hollywood Bowl
When: Oct. 2

It usually takes a mighty big voice to fill a big place like the Hollywood Bowl. Carrie Underwood was definitely up for the task. The former “American Idol” champ and her band, accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, made a highly satisfying debut at the famous venue on Saturday night.

Much of the sold out show was devoted to the Oklahoma singer’s third album. The crossover pop-leaning “Play On” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last November and has spawned three country chart-topping singles to date. This was the first area live appearance since that release for Underwood, who married Ottawa Senators ice hockey player Mike Fisher over the summer.

A sweeping orchestral fanfare served as an introduction in Los Angeles until the band took over and launched the 90-minute, 18-song set with a shuffling “Cowboy Casanova.” Underwood looked gorgeous and regal in a sparkly, black/gray dress. She sang the upbeat song with attitude as the backing vocalists did “whoas” like a  Def Leppard chorus amid feisty fiddle work.

Her image was initially projected inside a picture frame on the large screens. The amazing stage backdrop featured various architectural and outdoor locales, spinning slot machine reels and glowed like the ceiling at the Paris Las Vegas casino.

The string section gave a sprightly lift to the jaunty, folksy strains of “Quitter” (hard to believe the tune was written and produced by Britney Spears collaborator Max Martin). Underwood came across a bit reedy at first, but had no problem being heard over the orchestration, especially when she belted out “Wasted” and the sustained note on “I Know You Won’t,” which felt like a Disney film soundtrack ballad.

Having the orchestra around for musical interludes was definitely a bonus whenever Underwood dashed offstage to change outfits.

“Play On” found Underwood co-writing seven tracks (the most ever) and reflected her growth as an artist. That maturity was also obvious onstage, where she played piano, plus acoustic and electric (!) guitars. The latter instrument was prevalent on a grittier than usual “Some Hearts.” Underwood strummed quite a bit as a band mate did a rocking solo.

One of the personally penned numbers, “Temporary Home,” is about homelessness. Before an emotional vocal delivery, the singer was gracious and said how thankful she was for all the success and “if you take something away from this song, we’ve all done our jobs.”

Underwood turned up the sex appeal for the sassy, contemporary country pop of “Undo It” as the backdrop displayed the singer in black and white, fashion model-type clips from the accompanying music video.

Returning to more serious terrain, the moving “Jesus Take the Wheel” saw Underwood looking skyward and segueing into old spiritual “How Great Thou Art.” Nicely accented by stately orchestration and almost sounding Broadway-esque, the song received a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd and got Underwood all teary-eyed. 

Opening act Sons of Sylvia reprised their guest spot on Underwood’s latest release for a stripped down “What Can I Say.” The trio was front and center on guitars with their friend and supporter as she did the majestic, dramatic duet with SOS leader Ashley.

Poverty ballad “Change” and parental assurance tune “Mama’s Song” were both warm and inviting. But a tribute to the Grand Ole Opry on Underwood’s No. 1 cover of Randy Travis’ “I Told You So” was even more so. Why? The country veteran strolled onstage unannounced to serve as another Underwood duet partner and added excitement to the proceedings. Pop/rock guitarist Orianthi also turned up amid a fun and fierce “Last Name.”

Fireworks and the orchestration muted the usually fiery “Before He Cheats” and set closer “Songs Like This” - including a barely audible snatch of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”

Second warm up act Billy Currington often recalled a young Mac Davis at the Bowl. No slouch in the country chart topper department, the easygoing Georgia native included all five of them in an engaging 35-minute performance that left fans wanting more.

The hunky singer just put out “Enjoy Yourself,” an album with a relaxed vibe and songs about the simple life (fishing, imbibing, canine companions, etc.). Recent No. 1 song and ode to slackerdom “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer” went down well live as did the punchy, sax driven “Love Done Gone.”

Ladies in cowboy hats were charmed by the sensual ballad “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” and humorous “People are Crazy.” Yet faster, twangy selections like “That’s How Country Boys Roll” and “Why Why Why” had a more energizing effect on concertgoers.

Sons of Sylvia, previously known as the Clark Brothers, won a recording contract on Fox-TV’s short-lived 2007 reality show “Next Great American Band.” Their solid major label bow “Revelation,” finally came out a couple months ago. Despite judicious use of dobro, lap steel and fiddle (think John Mellencamp’s “Lonesome Jubilee”), it leans in a more rock and contemporary pop direction. One of the guys was in an early Underwood backing band and she took them out on a cross country concert trek this past spring.

Augmented by a drummer and bassist, Sons of Sylvia kicked off its half hour opening Hollywood Bowl set with a surprising cover: Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” Ashley stomped around the stage, then wildly yelped and crooned like Elvis Presley.

Highlights included the yearning “Give Me Love,” the album title track (a mandolin dominant true story which name checks John Lennon), a quick bluegrass number showcasing the siblings’ instrumental prowess and heartfelt single “Love Left to Lose” (first debuted on “American Idol” and co-written by their cousin
Ryan Tedder
of OneRepublic). Definitely one to watch.

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