In more ways than one, Carrie Underwood soared back into her home state Wednesday night.
Whether cruising above the audience in a flying pickup truck or sending her voice into the rafters as she nailed the big notes, the two-time Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year dazzled the sold-out crowd at Oklahoma City’s Ford Center with a nearly two-hour performance.
Wednesday’s stop on her blockbuster “Play On Tour” was the 2005 “American Idol” winner’s first headlining appearance in the Oklahoma City arena. She last played the Ford Center as part of the 2007 Oklahoma Centennial Spectacular; she also opened for Brad Paisley at a November 2006 concert in the venue.
Since then, Checotah's favorite daughter has grown up into a coolly confident, perfectly polished entertainer. Bolstered with an impressive string of huge hits and a bevy of inspirational anthems, Underwood performed with a poised style and immense voice that mesmerized her fans even in the midst of a first-class concert spectacle featuring slot-machine-style video tricks, glittery wardrobe changes and her soaring truck ride.
She seized the stage with equal amounts of sass and class, emerging from beneath the stage draped over a ruby-red chaise. Dressed in a spangly tuxedo and wielding a walking stick-shaped microphone, she strutted though her saucy cautionary tale “Cowboy Casanova.”
Underwood followed the sexy opening with a charmingly girlish rendition of “Quitter,” accompanied by retro boy-meets-girl animated scenes spinning like slot machines.
“It is so good to be here tonight hanging out with you guys,” she said. “I want you to pretend you’re the only person … in the room. I want you to dance around and sing out loud; if you know the words or not, it doesn’t matter.”
Her voice was strong and resolute as she delivered her rousing chart-topper “Wasted” while standing in a pool of light. The Grammy winner stripped off her tuxedo jacket and donned on a black guitar for her early hit “Some Hearts,” then disappeared briefly for the first of many wardrobe and set changes.
The huge LCD screens quickly transported the crowd into a series of idyllic country scenes. An old-fashioned swing descended from the ceiling, and Underwood – dressed in a ruffly pink skirt and black corset top - nonchalantly soared high above the stage while belting her heartrending hit “Just a Dream.”
“I don’t know how many of you have been keeping up, but I’ve had a pretty interesting five years or so,” she said, recalling her worry when she was a senior at Tahlequah’s Northeastern State University and still didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life.
“As any panicked senior in college would do … I tried out for reality television,” she said with a grin. “I’ve just been blessed to be able to do so many amazing things.
“I feel like I’ve grown so much as a person and as a songwriter. Who knew how much my journalism degree would help me out in songwriting.”
Her face shone with emotion as she crooned “Temporary Home,” a spiritual anthem she co-wrote, followed by the wistful ballad “Someday When I Stop Loving You.” She swapped out the chiffon skirt for trim black pants and again strapped on her guitar to play “All-American Girl,” with plenty of women in the audience enthusiastically providing background vocals.
After a masterful rendition of “So Small,” Underwood again disappeared while a larger-than-life version of the star marched through Checotah, Hollywood and Nashville on the giant video screens.
When she reemerged onstage, the singer was standing in the bed of an old-fashioned blue pickup, which steadily rose high above the stage as the fans screamed in delight. Gliding above the arena floor, she crooned the John Denver classic "Take Me Home, Country Roads," while thousands of eyes, cameras and smart phones tracked her progress.
"I do believe the country roads did take me home. …Flying blue truck, it's the only way to travel,” she quipped before launching into the spirited “This Time.”
When she landed, Underwood – who had changed into black leather pants, thigh-high boots and a shimmering gold tunic - tore through a lusty version of her rocker “Undo It” that got the fans singing along. They eagerly backed her again on the stirring “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which she effectively segued into the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”
She invited opening act Sons of Sylvia – a country-rock sibling trio that showed skilled musicianship in their set – back to the stage for their collaboration “What Can I Say,” from her 2009 “Play On” album.
The show kept its high-tech flair to the end: For the motivational “Change” she appeared in a formal “dress” – what appeared to be a mold casting – that twinkled with lights, and her cover of “I Told You So” turned into a slickly executed video duet with Randy Travis. The video screens were filled with family photos – culminating in a wedding picture of Underwood and new husband Mike Fisher that drew cheers – as the star played the piano and sang her heartfelt “Mama’s Song.”
While Underwood’s show, like her catalog, features an overabundance of ballads, she finished the concert in feisty fashion: As she rose from the piano, the long skirt of her lilac gown ripped away, leaving her in a minidress suited for her “what happens in Vegas” hit “Last Name.”
For her encore, she donned another super-short purple dress, along with thigh-high boots, to lead the crowd in a raucous sing-along to her revenge fantasy “Before He Cheats.” She closed the set with another wronged-woman number, the playful “Songs Like This,” which included clever riffs on Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”
“It’s good to be in Oklahoma,” she said, bidding farewell to the crowd as streamers and confetti rained down.
Sons of Sylvia effectively warmed up the crowd with an audacious set that opened with a solid cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” featured a nimble bluegrass jam and closed with the trio’s power ballad “Love Left to Lose.” Curly-haired heartthrob Billy Currington thrilled the ladies and pleased the guys with his laidback set of country hits, including “Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer,” “That’s How Country Boys Roll” and “People Are Crazy.”