It’s odd to consider that Carrie Underwood, who rose to fame on a cloud of preordained victory on “American Idol” 14 years ago, might have spent her instantly, consistently, wildly successful career being underestimated. But to see her Thursday at TD Garden was to realize that the good girl/bad girl dichotomy played out in her first album’s twin totems “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” not only would become more shaded and refined as she settled into herself as an artist, but that it was a dully reductive template of her possibilities. She was both, she was neither, and she was so much more.
In the studio, that’s meant finally stepping up to the producer’s chair for last year’s “Cry Pretty.” But it was also hard not to sense her fingerprints all over the design and structure of her current tour. With two crisscrossing arcs covering the entire span of the Garden floor and tricked out with mechanical risers — Underwood never left the stage between show sections so much as was subsumed into it — the physical setup meant that the entire sold-out audience had great seats and also that everyone got a good eyeful of the back of Underwood’s head.
It gave the singer plenty of room to cover with energy and confidence, which also extended to the music. In addition to power-country barnburners like the revving “Southbound” and the coiled potential energy of “Blown Away,” she ventured outside of the bounds of her genre to terrific effect. With simple, clean guitar plucks and polyrhythmic percussion, “End Up With You” could have been pop-R&B with zero alterations. The laid-back and downcast “Low” was blues in spirit if gospel-country in execution, and Underwood was engaged and fiery even when perched on a red fainting couch during the jazzy, noir-tinged “Drinking Alone.”
She also sold contrasts rather effectively. Her voice said she was panicked about the predicament in “Last Name,” but her confident demeanor said otherwise. “Backsliding,” meanwhile, presented weakness with uncommon vocal power. With her whole body in her performance, “Cry Pretty” was Underwood’s “No More Drama,” but she ended with “Love Wins,” a surge of defiant hope that she sent out in all directions.
While ideal for Underwood’s solo act, the 360-degree setup didn’t flatter Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June, who spent much of their opening sets not occupying the same space. Runaway June offered arena-scale empowerment country with occasional sparkling harmonies, but they hadn’t yet figured out how to handle the flattened sonic details the Garden gave them. The strut-in-their-step sisterhood of Maddie & Tae was a touch more one-dimensional, though they pulled off both the bite of the still-relevant “Girl in a Country Song” and the airy, driving thrum of “Tourist in This Town.”
With Maddie & Tae and Runaway June. At TD Garden, Oct. 10Marc Hirsh can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @spacecitymarc