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Carrie Underwood -- Concert Review

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A public suggestion to Carrie Underwood: Fireworks at the end of a Hollywood Bowl show are pretty much a tradition, but next time, try it after you're done singing so they don't drown you out, OK?

That move was one of several awkward missteps Saturday from country music's hottest female artist not named Taylor Swift. That's not to say the 90-minute-plus performance didn't have winning moments from the earnest singer.

It has been five years since Underwood was crowned an "American Idol" winner, and she has more than fulfilled the promise in terms of success: She has outsold another top "Idol" winner, Kelly Clarkson, 11.9 million to 10.6 million with one fewer album, and Underwood's current release, "Play On," has topped 1.7 million.

But despite numerous country chart-toppers and perhaps premature recognition as Entertainer of the Year, Underwood's transition to superstar status is another story.

She got off to a commanding start Saturday, dressed in evening black and wielding the microphone stand like a dueling staff for the sassy "Cowboy Casanova," followed by "Quitter," with cartoon images of relationships on the screen as rolls of a slot machine.

She strapped on an electric guitar for the soaring "Some Hearts" and later pulled out the chipper piece of apple pie and small-town (or even suburban) snapshots found in "All-American Girl."

Although she acknowledged playing the Hollywood Bowl as an "honor," she didn't note the Bowl Orchestra, which accompanied her, until show's end. She also underused the opportunity to deviate from a typical hit-based set list to perhaps sing a pop standard or something similar.

The orchestra's strings were evocative for several numbers, like turning the ballad "I Know You Won't" into a weary torch song of resignation. But at times, Underwood struggled to mesh with the arrangements, pushing too hard and faltering in phrasing. And her voice, while rangy, hasn't proved distinctive quite yet.

She changed ensembles several times, too, including a ballooning pink number that looked like a prom dress.

When a technical gaffe caused a slowdown, she handled it well; in fact, the spontaneous banter was better than some of her obviously rehearsed between-song minor patter. She also recalled moving to Los Angeles in February 2005 for "Idol," noting that a single decision "can change your life forever."

Before the hopeful "Change," Underwood gently mentioned that 36 cents of each ticket sold on her tour goes to Save the Children, a commendable move.

The night's opener, brother trio Sons of Sylvia, are longtime friends of Underwood and joined her onstage for "What Can I Say" to re-create their team-up from "Play On."

The sold-out audience -- leaning heavily female so much so it looked like a girls' night out -- frequently sang along to ballads and upbeat tunes, from the misty "Just a Dream" to the crunchy, what-did-I-do-last night bar tale "Last Name" with another guest, guitarist Orianthi.

Although fans went wild for the emoting, surrender-to-faith desperation of "Jesus Take the Wheel," the real highlight was the arrival of country music icon Randy Travis, joining Underwood for their hit duet "I Told You So."

Rather than make a fake exit then encore, Underwood wrapped with the cautionary empowerment anthem "Before He Cheats" and warmhearted "Songs Like This," the latter lost to the volume of fireworks.

When she was a contender on "Idol," weeks before she won, judge Simon Cowell said in an interview he already saw in Underwood a singer who could compete in the "real world" with platinum hitmakers, and the curmudgeon judge was right.

But as a live performer and artist, thrust perhaps too early by career momentum into arenas and such, she still has a ways to go.

The show also featured second-billed Billy Currington, who turned in a fairly generic set of country-boy party-time Southern rock, with beer being a big theme.

Venue: Hollywood Bowl (Saturday, Oct. 2)

Set list:
Cowboy Casanova
Quitter
Wasted
I Know You Won't
Some Hearts
Just a Dream
Temporary Home
All-American Girl
So Small
Undo It
Jesus, Take the Wheel/How Great Thou Art
What Can I Say
Change
I Told You So
Mama's Song
Last Name
Before He Cheats
Songs Like This