Outside the MTS Centre melted the first of these lazy summer nights, the kind that call to ambling escapes on long country roads, and music on the radio.
And the guitars, and the verse-chorus-verse, the hair tangling in prairie wind and Carrie Underwood -- oh, she couldn't have picked a finer time to land in Winnipeg, on this late stop of her year-long Blown Away tour. Outside the arena downtown Winnipeg was aglow; inside it was abuzz, and 15,000 fans, well, they needed this night with the ultra-mega-superstar.
She is a sublime songstress for this type of night, and for her young and sunkissed crowd. She sings with, not to, them. She brings them inside her heaven. So it went Wednesday night, when the lights went down and a screen rose on stage, the video on it made it look like a house. Then a door opened, and Underwood stepped out, and that brassy mezzo-soprano belted out the sultry opening notes of Good Girl, the opener from her 2012 fourth album Blown Away.
Eight years after Underwood was vaulted to incredible heights on American Idol, she has evolved into a confident star, but not a woman set apart. She still steps gingerly in high heels, still looks like a girl from Checotah, Okla. playing dress-up in gowns that cost a farm. It's one of the greatest of her charms, and why when she said "I know you will be thoroughly entertained," in her gentle twang, it sounded like when your party girls come callin'.
So the concert was a party, then, with all the attendant screaming and arm-waving, and Underwood just carried it along in her folksy foxy way. "We had a day off yesterday," she said, after wrapping up Wasted. "We went bowling, uh-huh, and I feel like the whole five-pin thing... I gotta get used to it. Just letting you know, we had fun in your city."
Set 'em up and knock 'em down, then. From that moment flowed all her robust country rockers, a few costume changes and loads of character.
For the down'n'dirty Last Name, Underwood emerged in a flirty short dress with a cloud-grey train; then paused to talk about how a buck from each ticket went to the Canadian Red Cross. "I never thought I'd be doing this," she said, during one of her breaks to chat. "I don't know what I'd be doing if it wasn't for trying out for a little reality TV show... it wouldn't mean nearly as much if we couldn't do something to give back while we're at it."
Then -- after a pair of ballads, including her breakout Jesus Take The Wheel, and the sass-track Cowboy Casanova -- Underwood slipped into cut-off denim and cowboy boots and headed down on the musical range. She gathered with her band on a flying mini-stage, surrounded by a faux-wood country fence, and crooned out Get Out Of This Town and the fiddly, boot-tappin' country sing-along All American Girl. Then some beach balls and confetti floated over the arena floor, while Underwood tossed leis and whistled through the summery One Way Ticket.
Back on a firmer stage, Underwood brought the party bus back home in shiny blue-jean leggings, with the whole MTS Centre crowd was on board. If a tire on that bus ever went flat, it was during Remind Me, for which Underwood stood next to a virtual-desert for a duet with a video-Brad Paisley. Putting the opening act on duet fill-in duty could have been so much more lively.
Still, Underwood immediately yanked the momentum back, sending the crowd howling along to frisky show-closers Cupid's Got A Shotgun and the irresistably saucy Before He Cheats. After they almost brought the MTS Centre walls down with stomping encore calls -- which bumped up against press time -- she came back out for the heart-rattling I Know You Won't.
Speaking of opening acts, a quick note on Underwood's, courtesy of a gaggle of ladies in the MTS Centre elevator: "Oh, that Hunter Hayes, he was just the cutest" -- laughter, howls for the 21-year-old Louisiana crooner -- "I just wanted to climb right up there and pinch him all over." Atta boy, Mr. Hayes.