|Photo by Kelly Swift|
A version of my review originally appeared at ocregister.com/entertainment/music.
Having followed and enjoyed the meteoric rise of Keith Urban’s career throughout the past decade, I’ve watched him perform on countless television awards programs, talk shows and concert specials. But I’d never actually experienced the country music superstar live – until now.
What a revelation.
Saturday night, his long-awaited tour in support of 2010’s “Get Closer” finally arrived in Los Angeles and took that title to heart. At various points in a thoroughly exciting, nearly 2½ hour show complete with surprise special guests, the New Zealand-born, Australia-raised singer/guitarist constantly made fan connections.
Several Get Closer songs revolve around the courage to love in a relationship and family, no doubt inspired by Urban’s wife Nicole Kidman and their two infant daughters (the actress didn’t attend the L.A. gig, but his parents flew in from Australia).
Heavily involved in tour production details, Urban has admitted feeling disconnected at the start of this extensive North American jaunt, which began in June and winds down soon. Focus wasn’t a problem at a packed Staples Center though. The tight four-piece band fired on all cylinders (keyboard and organ sounds were mired in a plodding, bass-heavy mix that oddly didn’t hamper opener Jake Owens).
Urban’s brand of country leans heavily into pop/rock territory, but just about every tune that he played had some sonic element true to Nashville , whether it was an electric mandolin, banjo or pedal steel. Entering to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Urban started the gig with a highly energetic “Put You in a Song,” the first of five "Closer" tracks. Female enthusiasts screamed like banshees when his image was projected on a huge single circular screen in the back right side of the stage.
After the dreamy ballad “Raining on Sunday,” Urban took an extended break to acknowledge and read all the signs fans held aloft, invited three gals onstage for polite kisses (one blurted out “my husband over there says it’s ok”) and shined a portable spotlight on the upper seating section a la Bono.
Sparkling lights and a mirror ball transformed the arena into a makeshift evening sky as the band performed the rousing “Long Hot Summer,” written with frequent collaborator Richard Marx. Urban’s impassioned delivery on the ballad “Stupid Boy” was touching and his fast-fingered guitar fretwork was a wonder to behold – and would cotinue to be time and time again.
The acoustic-based, romantic Rodney Crowell number “Making Memories of Us” began with a verse of Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” and fans swayed along, enraptured.
Suddenly, Urban left the stage and appeared in the center of the floor section on a small round stage. The solo three song mini-seated set was highlighted by a bluesy “Jeans On” and the passionate-yet-defiant “You’ll Think of Me,” sung while swiveling around so everyone could see. Next to me, a gaggle of hysterical women returned to their seats over being in such close proximity to the hunky singer.
Feisty and dynamic country rocker “You Gonna Fly” led into a snatch of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.” Unusually, Urban sang along to that band’s actual music video. He described the rendezvous lyrics for luxurious “Georgia Woods” and capped it off with another searing guitar solo. The measured, languid groove of “’Til Summer Comes Around” recalled one of Urban’s heroes – former Dire Straits axe man Mark Knopfler.
Onetime Creedence Clearwater Revival leader John Fogerty turned up for a spirited, unrehearsed “Proud Mary.” Both vocalists traded lines and Urban looked like he was having a blast.
The infectious, dance-friendly “Sweet Thing” found Urban singing from both sides of the stage and playing guitar on his knees. Before “Kiss a Girl,” Urban invited three fans up to take turns at singing the song’s chorus. Earlier, Corona del Mar resident Joshua had attracted attention by holding a small stuffed horse aloft. Now he got to strut his humorous stuff in front of thousands and eventually got to sing it with the band (the guy must be a karaoke master).
Playing a stunning, silver stained glass-finished guitar on “Somebody Like You,” Urban ripped off some chunky rock riffs that verged on Metallica for a few minutes. The musicians pogoed in unison and pulled out all the stops. “Now we’re cooking,” said Urban. Damn straight thery were.
And the band didn’t let off steam from there: Urban sang along to a video intro and segment of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way” (this time with a flashy lighted guitar) and segued into “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me.” Band introductions allowed three different members to sing a couple verses of various songs (U2’s “With or Without You,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl,” AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll”)).
Urban made another foray into the audience; this time climbing into the midsection to play “You Look Good in My Shirt” and thrilled a female fan, who apparently got to keep his electric guitar at the conclusion. Come encore time, actor/musician Jack Black appeared in a cowboy hat and shirt to do rapid fire lead vocal chores on a frantic cover of Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia ” in a comedic style only he can deliver. The song reached a fevered pitch when Urban hammered at his guitar strings, Eddie Van Halen-style. Black did a summersault and came close to tearing off his pants.
Jake Owen warmed up the crowd with an appealing 40-minute set. The charismatic Florida native’s third release “Barefoot & Blue Jean Night” recently topped the country album charts; the title track reached the pole position and has moved 1 million digital downloads.
At Staples, he went down well, thanks to the aforementioned catchy tune - tailor made for an arena – not to mention rambunctious ones like “Yee Haw” (a top 20 country hit in ’06) and “8 Second Ride.” But it was the stirring R&B-styled country of “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” and swelling, keyboard-driven “Along With You” that made the biggest impact.
Setlist: Keith Urban, Staples Center , Oct. 8, 2011
Main set: Put You in a Song/Days Go By/I Told You So/Raining on Sunday/Long Hot Summer/Stupid Boy/Making Memories of Us/I’m In/Jeans On/You’ll Think of Me/You Gonna Fly/Georgia Woods/’Til Summer Comes Around/Proud Mary (with John Fogerty)/Sweet Thing/Kiss a Girl/Without You/Somebody Like You/Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me/You Look Good in My Shirt
Encore: Tonight I Wanna Cry/The Devil Went Down to Georgia (with Jack Black)/Bette