I'm a music snob. It's not about scoring the highest dollar seats or the biggest name shows. No, my bar is set by authenticity.
We've all been to the concerts we expected to be bigger than life -- only to find performers who'd lost their passion. Some household names treat each show as a cash cow, go through the motions, sing the right (and sometimes wrong) lyrics, and move the circus along to the next town.
Let it be known that Keith Urban is not one of those jaded touring stars. Refreshingly, he's the polar opposite.
One Summer Night in Indiana
I saw Urban for the first time in an idyllic setting: the grandstand at the Indiana State Fair circa 2009. Budding star Jason Aldean opened, the fair's gigantic ferris wheel was lit up just beyond the stage at sunset, and then a big, shiny, summer moon hung above the crowd for most of Urban's performance.
It would have been a magical venue for any singer, but the Australian capitalized on the perfect weather and carnival backdrop, giving fans over two hours of pure energy. He ran at full speed along the track and into the stands, letting fans mob him as he played "You Look Good In My Shirt." His trademark guitar solos had devout metal heads in the audience proclaiming him a rock god, and his more tender songs elicited sighs from sunburned girls in the audience wearing straw hats, cowgirl boots, and little else.
Everyone seemed to leave the show in a trance, as if we were all thinking the same thing: "How will any other performance live up to that?"
Get Closer . . . Arena Style
When a friend posed the idea of seeing Urban in Columbus at Nationwide Arena this week, I protested: It's not outside! It's not a state fair! It's in an . . . arena.
I needn't have worried.
Urban intuitively knows his fans would rather be alone with him in a field down by the river with fireflies, lanterns, and the night sky lighting the stage. He also knows we'd prefer to see him from the front row instead of the upper rafters of a hockey stadium.
Answering those unspoken requests, his team created the "Get Closer" Tour. Regardless of how many others are along with you, the experience still manages to seem intimate. Barriers are elminated, cameras are welcome, and you're encouraged to stay on your feet.
Some songs are performed in the round under a single pin light. Others have only a few little white bulbs draped above the stage, giving the illusion of a backwoods concert in an old barn. Throughout, an enormous high-definition video board allows a clear view for all. There are no commercials for brands. No dancing girls on stage. No pyrotechnics. No costumes. It's all about you, Urban, his band, and the music.
When the time comes for the now infamous trip through the crowd for "Shirt," Urban finds his way to the back of the arena with fans literally hanging onto him. Instead of calling for security, he smiles and welcomes the interaction.
What's the Secret?
Even more impressively, Urban performs with as much enthusiasm as ever. When he pours out the epic "Stupid Boy," it's as if he hasn't played it since you saw him last and is unleashing years worth of pent-up, raw emotion just for your city.
Both casual and devoted fans will appreciate the set list. Twenty-one of Urban's singles have hit the top three on the US country charts, and most are included in the show. Highlights include the brand new "You Gonna Fly" and "Georgia Woods" along with the electric "Kiss a Girl," "Somebody Like You," and "Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me."
Many of Urban's songs take on the theme of renewal, and his shows feel like a sort of group celebration. Chains are broken, and paradise is coming. The heart-wrenching acoustic version of "You'll Think of Me," which netted Urban one of his four Grammy awards, provides an opportunity to reflect on past mistakes. He raises his fist triumphantly as he sings, "I'll be over you and on with my life."
Urban has lived those lyrics. His struggle with addiction is no secret, and I'm not the first concert goer to wonder how shows might differ post rehab. Thankfully, his new anti-drug is clearly the audience. He's flying high in a good way this time, and we're all invited along for the ride.
In a recent interview posted on his own YouTube channel, Urban said this tour is unlike any of his others. "There's something happening in the audience I've never seen with any other tour we've done," he said. "It's this thing. It's like a secret we all know. That's what I feel like up there on stage. You all know the secret. Everybody in the crowd knows it."
If you missed the Columbus show, but want in on the secret, find Keith Urban in Toledo on July 29; Fort Wayne, Indiana, on July 31; or Cincinnati on August 11.
Another opportunity to catch Urban live will be July 30, 2011 during a star-studded week at the PGA TOUR's Greenbrier Classic in Lewisburg, West Virginia. The tournament offers a single ticket allowing general admission to the golf tournament's four rounds and all concerts. Performers include Tim McGraw and Luke Bryan on Thursday night, The Black Eyed Peas Friday evening, and Miranda Lambert with Urban headlining on Saturday. Learn more at the event's website.