Last Night: Carrie Underwood at Toyota Center

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Carrie Underwood Toyota Center April 23, 2013

It's different at the top of the world.

Because critics are the spoiled little creatures that we are, we are traditionally given seats that cost most fans quite a bit of coin. Hell, Alicia Keys' people put me on the third row. Get told Carrie Underwood is not allowing press tickets on her Blown Away tour, and it suddenly becomes an opportunity to teach somebody a $70 lesson, by God.

So that was your humble correspondent up on the nosebleed level of Toyota Center Tuesday night, section 423, row 5, seat 17. But instead of fuming over this perceived slight, I saw a chance I don't normally get -- to see how well an artist like Underwood can or can't grab the people in the (cough) cheap seats.

It is possible; I've seen it myself. In the rafters of Reliant Stadium during this year's rodeo (which only cost $17), I got completely caught up in Lady Antebellum's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." Underwood didn't quite pull that off Tuesday, but she had her moments.

Taking a break from fighting Tennessee's proposed "Ag Gag" bill on Twitter (it would require anyone filming or photographing suspected animal cruelty to turn over their footage to the authorities within 48 hours), Underwood said not a word about this controversy Tuesday. It has been quite the talk around Nashville this week, both the state capitol and Music Row, due to her well-known animal-rights activism. Good time to be on tour.

But maybe she should have said something. Underwood feels somehow penned in by her relentlessly wholesome image compared to her main country rivals at the moment, serial dater Taylor Swift and shotgun-toting Miranda Lambert. From auditioning for and then winning American Idol onward, Underwood's life has followed the same trajectory of a garden-variety fairy tale: Mantels full of awards, a hunky hockey-star husband, thousands if not millions of meat-eating fans who can't possibly all share her vegan beliefs.

Underwood must be aware of this; Tuesday the visuals of dark woods and a bright meadow surrounding "Temporary Home" came straight out of a classic Disney movie. We'll get to The Wizard of Oz a little later, but on some level she seems acutely aware of her role as a vessel or a conduit for her fans to project themselves right back onto her. But the blank slate is a little too blank.

But she tends to play it too safe in her material, which is understandable but unfortunate. Tuesday's set was heavy with of atta-girl anthems, an inspirational song or two a la "Jesus Take the Wheel," and then lots of love. She seems to be either chasing it, warning others of faithless suitors, or wishing it would come back, but never getting badly burned by it either. It's fun sometimes -- "Last Name," "Cupid's Got a Shotgun," Hawaiian-flavored "One Way Ticket," "Can't Leave Love Alone, which brought out postpubescent opener Hunter Hayes -- but not much of it really sticks. Her best song to date is still "Before He Cheats," and that's been a while now; she needs another great revenge song in her catalog.

Other than sing, and she can sing, Underwood doesn't really do a whole lot. Onstage, she looks a little exposed. She doesn't dance, and doesn't run or even walk around the stage all that much. She grips the microphone like a vise -- I swear I saw her bicep flexing on one of the big video screens -- and sings from the very bottom of her diaphragm while the wind machine hits her full-blast.

Make no mistake, particularly on ballads like "Jesus Take the Wheel" or "Wasted," she is every bit the equal of her predecessors Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood, with the kind of roof-reaching churchy vocal talent that shines like a beacon in the proper setting. Opener "Good Girl" sounded a little overprocessed and pitch-corrected, but those kinks were sorted out quickly and did not persist throughout the 100-minute set and brief encore.

The one real surprise came when Underwood and three of her musicians shuffled into a roped-off part off the stage that at first resembled a corral but turned out to be a platform that detached from the main stage and allowed the quartet the to do a four-song mini-set while "flying" over the crowd like they were in a hot-air balloon.

That was pretty impressive, no doubt. But at no point Tuesday did her set feel spontaneous or truly intimate, like Underwood was making a one-on-one connection with any of the 16,000-plus fans in the building (whose opinions may well vary on that count). It was an arena show, nothing less and nothing more.

As the evening wore on, I kept coming back to the first time I saw Underwood live, at Reliant Arena in November 2009. Not long before the end of the main set, if memory serves, she let her band (save an acoustic guitarist) take a break and all but stopped the show with a cover of Randy Travis' "I Told You So." There was a real heartache in her voice, even at 26 years old.

Now? Now she's got a great wind machine, that's for sure.

Personal Bias: Tuesday was my third time seeing Underwood in concert. I'm still trying to figure out how that happened, but I'll still take her over Taylor Swift any day.

The Crowd: Young. Female. White. Suburban. Well-behaved.

Overheard In the Crowd: "We're only four flights up" - at the top of the stairwell, heading down after the show.

Also Overheard: "Oh my God!!!" -- someone behind me was really excited about Underwood's announcement that $1 from each ticket was being donated to the American Red Cross.

Random Notebook Dump: Boy, this is a long way from Leonard Cohen.

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