Carrie Underwood’s Big Voice Fills a Chicago Bar

Lucky Fans Enjoy Intimate Performance on the Small Stage

CHICAGO — Carrie Underwood never had to play for tip jars. She never had to take gigs in honky-tonks, bars and clubs on her way to the top. Her journey to superstardom brought her down a different path than most country stars. And yet, she looked so very much at home onstage at a small bar here Thursday night (Dec. 3).

She kept the standing-room-only crowd of about 900 at Joe’s Bar thoroughly engaged for about an hour with a mix of songs and stories and even some genuine self-deprecating humor. Like when she forgot a few words on “Mama’s Song,” a track from her new album, she remarked that she may forget a few lyrics from time to time but at least she wasn’t lip-synching. She even offered to just make up new words. “But I don’t want to make you guys envious of my rap skills,” she laughed.

And with each new song she introduced, Underwood let even more of her personality shine through. On “Last Name,” she told the audience, “I have little girls come up to me all the time and go, ‘Do you really not know your last name?’” Regarding her new single, “Temporary Home,” she put things in perspective by saying of the heaven-bound ballad, “This is such a great song for this time of year — to remind us all of why we’re here.”

But she knew enough to open the show with a rowdy rocker, “Flat on the Floor,” to show the fans that while she fits in at arenas, awards-show stages and chandeliered theaters, she can nail this bar thing, too.

Even her outfit was, for her, a dressed-down, casual style. After seeing Underwood in her recent “Cowboy Casanova” glittery short shorts and in her cascading burgundy dress from the ACM Awards, watching her perform in the comfort of jeans, boots, a yellow tank top and a boyfriend blazer was a welcome change of pace. And while she occasionally picks up a guitar during her live shows, all she did was sing Thursday night. Which, with a voice as pure and powerful as hers, was more than OK with the crowd of enthusiastic Underwood fans. With every note she sang, she proved that the size of the room you are playing is almost irrelevant. Talent is talent, no matter where you are doing the singing.

Her 12-song set was a nice breather from her recent string of television appearances, including Good Morning America, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Late Show With David Letterman. She was admiring the dense crowd and said how nice it was to play a real show for a real group of fans, as opposed to a tiny studio audience.

This audience was a new breed for Underwood. With the bar’s 21-and-over rule, there were no little girls and no screaming teenagers, so there was no one for Underwood to bring up onstage to sing “All-American Girl” with her. But she told a story about how one of the last times she did that, which was actually at another Chicago show in August, the girl had a bit of stage fright and refused to sing.

Underwood was more than capable of doing that song on her own. Her vocals never seem to falter. In fact, it sounds as if she gets better with every tune she sings. New ones, like “Undo It” and “Cowboy Casanova,” felt every bit the hits that older ones, including “Wasted,” “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “So Small” and “Just a Dream” did.

She closed the show with the cheatin’ song that made country fans out of so many people — “Before He Cheats.” But for the fans who didn’t get to see her at Joe’s Bar, she’ll be hosting Carrie Underwood: An All-Star Holiday Special, a two-hour variety program airing Monday (Dec. 7) on the Fox network.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.