CHICAGO -- A little bit of a hymn. A line or two from a Beyoncé song. And 90 minutes of country music, all backed with a full band and a full orchestra. You'd have to be a steadfast singer to pull all that off. Really, you'd have to be Carrie Underwood.
At her show just north of Chicago on Sunday night (Sept. 4), Underwood knew exactly how much Carrie Underwood to bring. She exposed her most affable side, told self-deprecating stories and wove 17 of her own songs into one of her most sincere concerts yet.
After opening with a trio of hits from 2005 through 2009 -- "Cowboy Casanova," "Quitter" and "Wasted" -- Underwood quickly got down to the business of honest confessions.
"I'm a terrible dancer, yet I do it anyway," she said when she was encouraging the sold-out crowd to dance. And when she was introducing "Some Hearts," one of the first songs she ever recorded after winning American Idol in 2005, she said, "I had no clue what I was doing in the studio. And I think people forgot that. They'd be like, 'All right, first take. Get in there and blah blah blah.' And I'm like, 'What's going on? What do I do with these headphones? Do I put them on?'"
Now, though, she is a pro. She's even progressed from singer to singer-songwriter. She talked about the rewarding feeling of being part of a song from beginning to end, like on "Temporary Home" and "Mama's Song."
"My major is actually in journalism," she said. "So I have something to fall back on if this whole singing thing doesn't work out."
That is not likely. The singing thing is really working out. There were times throughout the show when it looked like the orchestra was more in awe of Underwood's voice than they were of their own music. And it's obvious how much she is at home onstage. When she was telling stories about taking time off from work to get married, then going back out on the road, Underwood said she'd say she missed her home and her bed.
"But then when I'm home, I'm like, 'I miss my bus, I miss that stage,'" she remarked.
What this outdoor stage lacked at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill. -- a dance crew, vast wardrobe changes, music videos playing incessantly -- made Underwood's set shine that much brighter. And the Ravinia Festival Orchestra (conducted all night by Nashville veteran Charlie Judge) that played along with her road band was neither overpowering nor underwhelming. In fact, when Underwood laced the refrain from "How Great Thou Art" into her own "Jesus, Take the Wheel," it was the orchestra's first well-deserved standing ovation of the night.
As a testament to the power of Underwood's voice, that standing ovation came from a crowd of roughly 18,000 people -- about 15,000 of which couldn't even see her. The Ravinia Festival is set up like a small amphitheater without a hill. So the pavilion holds 3,200 fans, but the rest are scattered across the flat grassy areas surrounding the pavilion. It's the kind of place where concession-stand beer and nachos are replaced with picnic baskets full of chilled sauvignon blanc, real wine glasses and prosciutto and Chevre bruschetta. Even Underwood seemed to know all about the Ravinia culture, since she's played the venue twice before.
"I always enjoy playing here because it has such a wonderful, relaxed vibe," she said. "I would've given anything to have something like this nearby us when I was growing up. So I hope you guys realize how awesome you've got it."
When she played Ravinia in September 2009, she tried to bring a little girl onstage to help her sing "All-American Girl." That girl had some stage fright, and at the time Underwood comforted her, saying, "It's OK. Seriously, I wouldn't have done it either." So on Sunday night, she told the audience that she has since taken that part out of her show and now sings the song alone. But she misses it.
"I would've given my left ear to be onstage with somebody like Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Not that I'm comparing myself to them in any way, shape or form, but those are the people I looked up to growing up," she said of wanting to share the stage.
She continued the non-stop string of hits with "So Small," "Undo It," "Change" and Randy Travis' "I Told You So." Then started to close it out with "Last Name" and "Before He Cheats," with a fusion of banjo, cellos, violins (and fiddles) that gave the tunes the grandeur they deserve.
But it was her final song that capped the night off with the biggest pop-country flourish. Right in the middle of her "Songs Like This," after the bridge, her banjo player joined Underwood at the front of the stage for a spirited solo. Then, she changed the lyrics. So it went, "Songs like this one that tell the whole world what a jerk you are/Hey, white liar, the truth comes out a little at a time/If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it/If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it/Well, if it wasn't for guys like you, there wouldn't be songs like this."
It was as if the trifecta of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Beyoncé got together to craft the perfect done-me-wrong song.
Earlier in the night, when Underwood looked back on winning Idol and everything that's happened since, she said, "I consider myself such a lucky person to have people who love me to do what I love."
She was talking about her family. But watching the faces of her fans leaving the show, it was obvious they, too, love to watch her do what she loves.