The best way to hear Carrie Underwood is the same way that inspired millions of quick-fingered "American Idol" voters to give her the title - as far away from the sterility of a studio as possible.
Underwood's robust voice could cut through titanium, so it still slices through the overproduced clutter on her album, "Some Hearts." But when music sounds embalmed, so can the mood.
Not so Sunday at the Illinois State Fair Grandstand, where the 23-year-old Oklahoma sweetheart brought to her own songs what the crowd of 9,687 already knew from watching her sing chestnuts on TV. She's an unfailingly vibrant performer whose towering talent makes any song work live.
Underwood belted the dickens out of well-performed, full-band ballads - "Starts with Goodbye," "Lessons Learned," "I Just Can't Live A Lie" - but sounded like she was having more fun with the uptempo songs. She gave a seductive sales pitch worth biting on for the familiar call to cut loose on show-opening "We're Young and Beautiful." And although the revenge-seeker of "Before He Cheats" clearly is a character, the lie sold a little stronger on stage.
"American Idol" gurus never would let it happen, but Underwood would be best off in mostly acoustic shows. A stripped-down middle portion scorched the corn off of "Don't Forget To Remember Me" and "AI" signature song, "Inside Your Heaven." Plus, Guns 'n' Roses music rarely could be described as pretty, but she made it happen on a cover of "Patience."
Better yet was a fully rocking, nasty nailing of "Sweet Child O' Mine" - right down to Underwood's vocal "cha" right before guitars kicked in or mimicking Axl Rose's sucking in of air. It easily was one of the song's best-ever cover versions, followed by a dainty "thank you" at its finish.
If Underwood is a bit green at anything, it's stage chatter. Copious amounts of gratitude given out to the audience after each song were 100-percent sincere. But she said "thank you" as many times as Ruben Studdard says "sorry" in his song "Sorry 2004." Nice gesture, but a few times is fine.
Underwood sent her departing cowgirl fans into a dancing frenzy with "Some Hearts" before returning with an encore, "I Ain't in Checotah Anymore." What seemed at the start another mopey song about big-city blues was instead a rollicking romp that put Underwood on par with one of her own idols, Martina McBride, and put every other female country arena-filler on notice to watch out.
Last time Phil Vassar opened at the Grandstand, he shook his butt. On Sunday, with a running start, he slid it Dukes-style across his Yamaha piano. As caffeinated as the Jolt Cola on his T-shirt, Vassar's performances of recent hits like "Last Day of My Life" and "The Next Thirty Years" and staples like "American Child" drew more crowd hoots as his set went on. Kudos, too, for a "Saturday Night Live" Buckwheat reference with a "Wookin' Pa Nub" thrown into "I'll Take That As a Yes."
Source: Springfield State Journal Register