Carrie Underwood has outlived American Idol. While the television show has produced a handful of success stories, none tower higher than the Season 4 winner, who has sold 65 million records and has earned 13 country No. 1 hits.
Idol bowed out for a final time last week, and Underwood spent a few seconds on Sunday evening at Oracle Arena — a Bay Area stopover on her current Storytellers tour — memorializing the vehicle that shined a light on her talent and hosted her one final time during the finale.
“I was surprised how emotional I got,” she said. “I still can’t believe I get to stand on this stage and sing for you.”
But it was only a few seconds, and Underwood was ready to move on. “Storytellers Tour” might sound like an intimate engagement, but it’s truly a juggernaut spectacle, with pyrotechnics, lasers, massive moving stage pieces and a huge in-the-round stage that closely resembled the one that British rockers Muse brought to Oracle last December. A big central rotating platform was flanked by two smaller, circular stages and connected by wide walkways. Powerful lifts at both ends and in the middle raised Underwood and her band members upwards of 30 feet in the air, and also lowered them out of sight. Underwood constantly moved from one end to the other and had no strong preference for any one direction.
The 22-song set was heavy on Underwood’s latest offering, Storyteller, with no fewer than eight songs off the 2015 album. After opening with new track “Renegade Runaway,” she performed a quick medley of No. 1 hits, “Last Name” and “Something Bad.” Older songs “Undo It” and “Good Girl” led up to another new one, “Wedding Bells,” before she scuttled off for the first of four dress changes. That’s how the show proceeded, but none of the breaks, during which her band continued to play, slowed momentum because none were longer than three or four minutes.
“Act 2” kicked off with one of the highlights of the night, Underwood singing “Cowboy Casanova” (from 2009’s Play On) from atop a giant jukebox, neon lights and all, while sparks fired from both sides. After singing another new song, “Heartbeat,” from under a giant mirror ball, she segued into one of her earlier hits, “Jesus Take The Wheel,” alone and above a fabricated cloud.
The third act was the most cohesively entertaining because Underwood and her band showed the most energy and urgency on songs that were similar in scope. After “Blown Away,” the title song of her previous album, she moved on to “Two Black Cadillacs.” Several video-projection set pieces hung, seemingly precariously, above and flashed ambulance-red sirens while Underwood dashed back and forth underneath. “Dirty Laundry” followed, and that song pivoted into a bluesy (and if that wasn’t clear, the lights all flashed blue) “Choctaw County Affair.” That song included a harmonica duel between Underwood and one of her bandmates.
But the moment of the night, the one during which Underwood won over remaining doubters, was a sparsely arranged cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which finally gave her a chance to show off her pipes. She did not disappoint, combining crystal-clear vocals that ranged the gamut on the difficult-to-master song.
The show wasn’t perfect, however. Tours that are so highly produced, with many moving pieces and pre-programmed technology, prevent course changes. This tour has featured a nearly identical set list from start to now. At times, Sunday’s concert felt forced, as if Underwood wanted to go in a different direction, but the heavy production wouldn’t let her.
A notable example came after performing “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” a touching tribute to her husband and toddler son. Underwood didn’t appear ready to move on, but her band kicked right into the next up-tempo number, a cover of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishin’ in the Dark.” As always, her openers, Easton Corbin and The Swon Brothers, were due to join her onstage at any moment. The quick change in pace caused her to lose her place and have to start over.