Sunday's Carrie Underwood concert was a good news/bad news affair.
The good news is that the concert sold out. It's not the first show to sell out the James Brown Arena in recent months -- Jason Aldean pulled it off in February and Tyler Perry did it two nights running in March, but Underwood did it in 24 minutes. That's impressive.
There were also pleasant surprises to be found. The opening act, a band of Nashville brothers with rock hearts called Sons of Sylvia, presented a raw, ragged and raucous set of noisy rock. Imagine what might happen if the Strokes purchased all its instruments from Ricky Skaggs' garage sale -- skinny jeans, electric mandolins and a steel guitar solo on the Stones' Gimme Shelter .
What disappointed me was the performance of the headliner. A lavish, nearly Disney-extravagant production, the Underwood show presented a new gimmick for every song sung. Whether it was a fiber optic dress that swirled with color in time to the tune or a flying Ford truck that shot well-timed glitter from the tailpipe, or a video duet with Randy Travis, no song was left untouched.
While there certainly was pleasure to be taken from the spectacle of it all, from the technology employed and the amount of time Underwood managed to spend rising and falling on hydraulic lifts, it frankly took away from the music. More than that, it might have negatively affected it.
Underwood is blessed with a lovely and unexpectedly unique voice. She has all kinds of raw power while retaining a sort of girlish quality than never seems immature but is certainly endearing. It's a subtle voice, full of nuance and tonal quality. It's also a voice forced to contend with a large band, smoke, lights, video and that silly truck. As a result, much of the time it felt like Underwood was pushing, singing as hard and high and loud as she could to maintain focus -- her own and the audience's -- while all around her things flashed and banged. It gave the vocals a certain stridency that was not welcome, a certain sense of desperation.
Look, I understand that a star of Underwood's stature isn't going to come out in jeans and a T-shirt and sing her songs solo with an acoustic guitar. Her fans want more. The young girls who idolize the American Idol star want more. I do wonder, however, if there might be some way to adjust the ratio, to make the music more meaningful and the show slightly less so.
While we're on the subject of Underwood, it should be noted that the success of this show probably isn't in revenue from tickets sold, although that's important. Instead, it's the ability of Global Spectrum, the management company in charge of running both the James Brown Arena and Bell Auditorium, in addition to the Convocation Center at the University of South Carolina Aiken, to put the event on its résumé.
For years, the problem at the James Brown, or the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center as it was then known, was a poisonous reputation. Bad bookings, bad management and lackluster audiences made Augusta an undesirable tour stop. Word in the industry was that Augusta was to be avoided rather than embraced.
When Global Spectrum came in, I believed things were too far gone for even the most eager and adept of teams to turn it around. It appears I was wrong, although it's still in the early days.
Continued success stories such as the Underwood show will go a long way toward repairing the damaged reputation. Right now Global Spectrum has a couple of big shows scheduled, including next month's Daughtry performance and the Earth, Wind and Fire concert in early July. There are also, I am assured, some exciting possibilities in the works. Here's hoping Underwood is a sign of things to come.