After a couple shows and a well-earned week away, I'm in the audience this evening offering insights, opinions and random rambling from the sold out Carrie Underwood show at the James Brown Arena.
There's always been some debate as to where to find the line dividing rock and country. Is it in Zac Brown's twangier jams? A Lynyrd Skynyrd slow jam? According to Sons of Sylvia, the black-clad brothers opening for Underwood, it never existed. The band opened with a smoking solo plaid on a Flying V steel (I know, it was my first as well) that quickly segued into a an unapologetically heavy version of the Stones' Gimme Shelter. That was followed with a song that opened with the line "I was born the year John Lennon died".
Remember, this is, ostensibly, a country act. And certainly there are elements of the classic country sound in the songs, but there's also black leather blended with the mandolin and a decided punk approach to the group's bluegrass attack. The look like the Strokes, play like the Pistols but still come straight outa Nashville.
There is no rock. There is no country. There is just music. Just ask the Sons of Sylvia.
It isn't surprising that Craig Morgan has survived the rigors of Nashville, dodging one-hit wonder status and becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry, because he is the very template of what a contemporary country performer should do and be.
There's nothing particularly spectacular about Morgan. The songs are strong - but living in a town profusely populated by tune spinners looking for a big break will produce the occasional gem. What works for Morgan is his understanding that country fans want a certain measure of earnestness and a certain measure of humor. They want classic country twang and the horns and strings of contemporary pop. They want a rocker and a guy that can deliver the occasional quirky cover - in Morgan's case Easy (Like Sunday Morning) and The Joker. He delivers all of this, and is able to do it in the limited time allotted a middle-of-the-bill opener.
Craig Morgan may never move the units or sell seat the way Carrie Underwood, this evening's hostess with the mostess, can. It doesn't matter. He's avoided becoming a flash in the pan and, nearly ten years into his career, has become that rarest of performers.
He's a successful working musician.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that when it comes to concerts, I believe an artist should err on the side of simplicity. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule. When U2 plays a football stadium, for instance, it's perfectly acceptable to carry a construction that allows the band to project and perform for fans located 100 yards away. But for the most part, I believe all the pomp and circumstance is, at best, unnecessary and at worst, employed to hide something.
I bring this up because Carrie Underwood, or perhaps her handlers, does not share my less-is-more belief. Nary a single stop remains unpulled this evening. Lavish stage set? Check. Multiple costume changes? Check. A bonanza of lighting, video and mechanical effects? Check, check and check. It's full-tilt boogie.
It's also a shame. It's a shame because although Underwood manages to hold her own in front of the special effects spectacular, I have to wonder how a more intimate and controlled concert might sound. If, instead of having to push with all her might during each and every number, she were allowed the opportunity to just sing. She is, after all, a gifted singer. She won a contest and everything.
It's true that I am not a participant in the music industry - just an active observer. I also understand that Underwood is still in the early stages of a career that last several decades. Plenty of time for subtle. Still, I have to question the taste of a John Denver cover performed in the bed of a pickup flying over the audience.
It just seems a bit much - particularly when it shoots glitter out the tailpipe.