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Carrie Underwood huffs and she puffs and she blows Target Center away

Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood Invision/AP

Carrie Underwood is exhausting.

For nearly 15 years, the American Idol champ has pounded hit after well-selected hit into the country charts with hammer-like force, efficiency, and precision. I don’t begrudge anyone whatever exhilaration or inspiration the gravity-defiant gale of her delivery has blown into their lives. But when the winds whip up, I’m one to take cover, and I’ve admired her career from a safe distance with weary admiration.

Why then did I choose to spend two hours on a lovely first night of summer at the Target Center for Underwood’s Cry Pretty 360 Tour? Call it paying my respects. Or maybe due diligence. The only woman in Nashville still so consistently successful commercially that even country radio’s old boys club can’t ignore her, Underwood, at the stage of her career where stars habitually coast on their legacy, picks (and writes) better songs than ever. Maybe, I thought, appreciation could blossom into affection. You never know, right?

In retrospect, this was maybe dumb. After all, an arena's worth of adoring fans weren’t exactly about to encourage restraint in a singer given to tackling her material headfirst. (I don’t use that verb lightly—5’ 3” she may be, but there’s a reason this linebacker of a vocalist is the NFL’s diva of choice.) My reservations about Underwood's performance style are stronger than ever: More often than not, the louder she sings the less I believe her, and the more she exudes distrust of her material, her audience, and herself. But after Friday night, my belief that all three deserve the trust she withholds is just as strong.

From the start, Underwood’s opener “Southbound” thumped more stiffly than a party song should, her band establishing its arena-rock bona fides as she leaned into her longstanding Shania Benatar shtick, which is good fun even if she never shimmies anywhere near Twain’s blithe camp glee or even approximates Pat’s crisp pop-metal swagger. After unsuccessfully pretending bad boys don’t turn her on with “Cowboy Casanova” and “Good Girl,” Underwood slid into “Last Name,” about a nearly anonymous one-night stand that ends with a quickie Vegas marriage.

Though Underwood is fond of calling songs like these “sassy”—an adjective she reused two or three times over the course of the night—her uptempo sprees tend toward the cautionary. In fact, maybe the most traditionally country element of Underwood’s music isn’t the occasional banjo or the twang in her voice but the twinge of Christian guilt that repeatedly sours her good times. There’s a reason her sex-with-an-ex ballad is called “Backsliding,” and I should add that's a pretty hot number—a reminder in our sex-positive times that guilt still makes for a hell of an aphrodisiac.

But the Lord’s got no monopoly on vengeance in Underwood’s songbook. Wronged women killed men in two consecutive songs—“Church Bells” (a poor girl offs her violent, wealthy husband) and “Two Black Cadillacs” (a wife and mistress team up to end a two-timer)—before “Blown Away” embedded us within an abused daughter’s fantasies of apocalyptic destruction. The stakes are high in these songs, and Underwood played none of them for grim “Goodbye Earl” comedy. It was dark, effective stuff.

As an atheist who thinks agnostics are playing it safe, I appreciate when folks on the other side of the spiritual divide don’t sugarcoat their beliefs either. So I give Underwood credit: When she gets serious, she doesn’t extoll the healing power of music or some amorphous spiritual god. “Jesus, Take the Wheel” seeks the divine grace of the son of God, and “Something in the Water” isn’t just religious, or even Christian—it’s explicitly about the transformative power of baptism. And if she never gives me that free-fall stomach plunge that a true gospel great would, the way Underwood sings, “I’m changed” with a semblance of fragility and buoys “I’m stronger” with real heft gives the latter song’s once-lost, now-found testimony a lived-in credibility.

Sandwiched within this set of “important” songs, as she called them (as distinguished from, yes, the “sassy” ones), was “The Bullet,” which Underwood decided to record after the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music festival. It’s noncommittal in that way pseudo-political Nashville can be (“You can blame it on hate or blame it on guns”—porque no los dos, Carrie?), but as a mild pushback against the NRA party line it’s a start, and as songwriting it’s wise in how it illustrates the private persistence of trauma that lingers when the headlines fade. “Low,” the decent arena-sized weeper that followed this triptych, could hardly compete.

Underwood next made a show of solidarity in an area where she could possibly have a direct effect. She called out her openers, Runaway Jane and Maddie & Tae, and celebrated that this was “a tour full of women.” Together, they performed a tribute to “the women we heard on country radio”—an unremarkable choice on the surface, but in the context of recent controversies over country radio’s refusal to add women to playlists, also a superstar’s show of resistant muscle. If there are no female country singers on the radio, Underwood implied, there’s no next generation of female country singers.

“Stand By Your Man” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” were as dutiful and respectful as you’d expect, the choices of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “9 to 5” more obvious than Loretta or Dolly deserved. But things warmed up with the Judds’ “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain” and really hit a groove with the ’90s selections. Tricia Yearwood’s “She's in Love With the Boy,” Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” Faith Hill’s “Wild One,” Reba McEntire’s “Why Haven't I Heard From You,” and Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”—the six women on stage sang each like the girls they’d been when they first heard them.

Then, as though to kneecap cynics like me who chafe at cornball inspirational ballads, Underwood invited onstage a Wisconsin fan who’d been helped through her dad’s illness by “The Champion” to rap the part Ludacris handles on the recording. (She did great.) And the set closed with Underwood's career-making “Before He Cheats,” which really does call for every last cubic inch of air her lungs can contain—Louisville Slugger or no, headlights don’t smash easy.

As an encore, Underwood returned, daubed with gaudy eye makeup, for “Cry Pretty,” which she co-wrote with longtime collaborator Hillary Lindsey, as well as two of Music Row’s finest, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna. A showstopper, it’s the sort of big old power ballad that her style is built for. And so, if you insist, is “Love Wins,” the finale, even if that one offers a far-too-easy answer to off-the-mark questions like “Politics and prejudice/How the hell’d it ever come to this?”

With each of these closing numbers, as she had throughout the night, Underwood proved that at its best, her voice can suggest either the power greater than yourself you turn to for strength or the inner gust of determination you need to overcome obstacles. At its worst, she’s the blare of the TV when you crank the volume up to drown out your thoughts. And despite it all, Carrie Underwood remains essentially a force for good.

I just wish sometimes “force” wasn’t the operative word.

Setlist
Southbound
Cowboy Casanova
Good Girl
Last Name
Backsliding
Church Bells
Two Black Cadillacs
Blown Away
Drinking Alone
End Up With You
Flat on the Floor
Wasted
Temporary Home/See You Again/I Know You Won't/Just a Dream/Dream On
Jesus, Take the Wheel
The Bullet
Something in the Water
Low
Medley: Stand By Your Man/Walking After Midnight/Coal Miner's Daughter/9 to 5/Rockin' With the Rhythm of the Rain/She's In Love with a Boy/Independence Day/Wild One/Why Haven't I Heard From You/Man! I Feel Like a Woman!
Undo It
The Champion
Before He Cheats

Encore
Cry Pretty
Love Wins