Perhaps the country tag is a misnomer. On their joint national tour, which filled 1st Mariner Arena on Wednesday night, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood sounded more like pop-rock stars. The "country" elements of their music were faint at best.
But that didn't mar their performances.
Underwood opened the show, backed by a loud, eight-piece band that threatened to overwhelm her platinum pipes. Sashaying around the stage in a black minidress and vampish spike-heeled boots, the radiant Oklahoman and former American Idol invoked more of Pat Benatar than Shania Twain. She laced "Before He Cheats" with an appropriate amount of vocal venom. And she sustained plenty of high notes, especially on the slower numbers. But still something about Underwood's hourlong performance felt mechanical.
Although she had the trappings befitting a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling star - a multi-tiered, industrial-looking set, a huge video screen as a backdrop, great hair and makeup - Underwood didn't quite own the stage. Despite being on Idol and selling truckloads of her two albums, Some Hearts and Carnival Ride, she has yet to develop much of a stage personality. Sure, she smiled a lot and coyly waved at fans. But when she wasn't belting out a number at the microphone stand, she seemed tentative.
That still didn't stop her diva aspirations. During her stagey performance of "Jesus, Take the Wheel," Underwood sang the heart-tugger in a long cornflower-blue gown that draped over the lighted pedestal she stood on. Behind her, images of cottony clouds rolling against a crystal-blue sky flashed across the screen. The singer's eyes were closed, her arms were outstretched, and her notes were high and long. It was all so cliche.
But she soon redeemed herself, tearing off the long skirt of the gown to reveal yet another minidress. Strutting down the long catwalk that divided the audience on the arena floor, Underwood mightily wailed Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City," the only unforced song in her hourlong show.
Urban did much more with less. His stage set was minimal - just the artist, his five-piece band and a gigantic video screen whose main purpose was to broadcast close-ups of the hunky singer. Around the drum kit, several sticks of incense burned - the sweet, woodsy scent wafting near the front of the stage.
Because the New Zealand-born and Australia-raised Urban has been performing much longer than his touring partner, he was much more engaging and seemed at home on the arena stage. But like Underwood, the country side of his music was hardly traceable. He and his tight band even looked like rockers, donning faded jeans and T-shirts.
Urban stuck mostly to his greatest hits, embellishing such cuts as "Shine," "Faster Car" and "Stupid Boy" with showy guitar solos. But it was all well-paced. Urban almost evenly divided his hour-plus set between rousing rock cuts and unplugged, acoustic numbers. Though he's a better musician than singer, Urban managed to wring some emotion from his light, high tenor during "Raining on Sunday."
However, the best performance of Urban's set actually featured Underwood. She strutted back down the catwalk to join the singer-musician on "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," a pop-rock duet originally done by Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. Underwood put her hand on her hip and slightly affected Nicks' famed rasp. Urban sang with vinegary attitude as he tossed his long bangs out of his face.
The two looked and sounded like marquee rock stars.