Carrie Underwood's choice of a tornado as the central image for her current "Blown Away" album and tour became something of a double-edged sword as her show unfolded Tuesday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
On one hand, it's a powerful symbol of a force of nature analogous to Underwood's titanium pipes, which at times seemed capable of filling the arena with no help from a PA system.
On the other, a tornado is a force beyond human control that typically leaves a trail of destruction wherever it touches down, a trait Underwood also shared throughout a show that opened at maximum voltage and operated there for the bulk of the evening.
Her updated version of Randy Travis' 1988 hit "I Told You So" was a prime example. The lyric is the pleading of a lover who has betrayed a partner's trust and begs to be given another chance, knowing the answer may—and probably will—be no. Belting out the chorus in which the words convey the singer's vulnerability, Underwood trampled the tenuous feelings at the song's heart.
Her firepower is better suited to her hits of vengeance and retribution such as "Before He Cheats," "Cowboy Casanova" and the new album's title track, although those too would only get stronger if she brought more shading and delicacy to relevant words and phrases to contrast with the raw emotion of the choruses.
Pop music's best singers understand that to everything—musically as well as temperamentally--there is a season, and thus know when to whisper and when to scream. The most invigorating musical conversations are those that rise and fall, ebb and flow in direct relation to the content of the dialogue. Underwood's tacit message is that any idea worth sharing is more compelling the louder it is delivered.
It's hard to fault Underwood, however, as her audience cheered every supernaturally sustained note and glass-threatening vocal climax, offering positive reinforcement as if to an Olympic pole vaulter scaling ever higher altitudes.
The Muskogee, Okla., native often was more down-home engaging in her between-song patter than during the songs themselves, sincerely thanking those on hand for their tacit donations to the Red Cross, noting that $1 from each concert ticket sold on her tour is being donated to the relief organization.
Later she also reminded the crowd that it was a mere eight years ago that she took her first ride on an airplane -- to come to Los Angeles to take part in "American Idol."
It's hard not to wish, however, that some fearless vocal coach or mentor might return to remind her of the breathtaking emotional power George Jones conjures when he gently sang "He said 'I'll love you till I die'," in the opening of "He Stopped Loving Her Today," or the heart-rending way Tammy Wynette haltingly confesses "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman" at the outset of "Stand By Your Man."
Underwood put on a spectacular production aimed at the "American Idol" crowd that launched her career, full of dazzling costume changes, creative staging and megawatts of musical wattage. Midway through a show that ran more than 90 minutes, she and three members of the band flew over the crowd on a glass-bottomed quadrilateral mini-stage.
She was joined for a duet on "I Just Can't Live a Lie" by opening act Hunter Hayes, the one-time Cajun accordion-wielding viral video phenom from Breaux Bridge, La., who's turned into a guitar-slinging country cousin to Justin Bieber with his fresh-scrubbed boyish good looks and pliant tenor voice. His physical resemblance to John Mayer was only heightened by the nimble instrumental displays of this country-rock-blues guitar hero in the making. The chemistry between the two was nominally better than Underwood's subsequent virtual duet with an onscreen Brad Paisley for his song "Remind Me."
Imagery played a major part in the show, and a clever array of video screens around Underwood brought loads of color and music-video energy to the performance by the star and her eight-member backup group. There were a number of visual references to the most famous tornado story out of the Midwest—"The Wizard of Oz"—amped up to modern-day intensity levels, but these were only fleetingly mitigated by scenes of sweetness, or the sense of wonder that is central to the 1939 film classic.
Imagine what a boon to humankind a tornado could be if only its full power could truly be harnessed.
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2