Communication is the key at large arena and amphitheater shows.
How do you make the ticket buyer in the last row feel like they were part of the show? How do you turn your touring act, which takes on a similar shape in every town you play on your mega-tour, into something that feels personal to the folks who’ve shelled out the cash for your show? How do you turn clockwork into real time?
Keith Urban offered a serious lesson in how to do just that on Friday at Darien Lake. The guy just plain seems to care. And he was clearly intent on making Friday’s show something special for the mostly full house. (The inside was packed, but the lawn was about three-quarters full.)
Urban has always been an anomaly among the current crop of country mega-stars. He has a deep and abiding love for rock music, is a serious guitarist who is not shy about sharing his talent, and an artist who wanders from the approved modern country template by avoiding the “beers and chicks and trucks” formula. He paces his shows like a man who attended far more rock shows than country gigs, too. And that fact works to his advantage.
Friday’s show was a burner, from the get-go. Opening with “Love’s Poster Child,” Urban wasted no time digging into a smoking country-rock guitar solo on the first of what would be a steady stream of gorgeous vintage guitars. (By three tunes in, he’d sported a Fender Telecaster, a Gibson 335, and a Fender Stratocaster, all of which appeared to be vintage instruments.)
Later, Urban would arrive in the middle of the crowd on a satellite stage to perform a raucous “You Look Good in My Shirt.” Then he ran through the crowd while busting another torrid guitar solo. (Clearly, he has taken pages from the AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen playbooks. And he deserves serious credit for this.)
The hits came fast and steady, of course, this being a pre-scripted show that has followed the same setlist since its inception. “Sweet Thing” got the crowd into the sing-along mood, “Somewhere In My Car” made the ladies wish they were Nicole Kidman, and “Only You Can Love Me This Way” proved that Urban knows how to bow the heartstrings with an emotive country-based ballad.
But the heart of Urban’s show was rock ‘n’ roll, to be sure. He and his stellar 4-piece band laid down power-chord rock for most of the show, and Urban seemed happiest when he was tearing into a fiery guitar solo.
It’s hard to find criticisms of Urban’s sleek show, but one might be that it was too sleek. I, for one, would love to hear this killer quintet take it outside, and improvise for a while. Springsteen is clearly Urban’s hero, and man, he and the E Street Band do it all the time. Why not, Keith? Go for it! I’m pretty sure your crowd would follow. Of course, if you never do, your audience probably won’t care. But I get the feeling you would.
Urban touched the hearts of his Western New York crowd by bringing up a young girl celebrating her 16th birthday for an introduction and a “selfie” op that included the girl’s mother. Later, he brought Jordan Hokaj of Lancaster onto the stage to duet on “We Were Us,” a song originally tackled by Urban and Miranda Lambert. Hokaj, the winner of country music station WYRK FM’s “Sing with Keith Urban” contest, did us all proud. She appeared poised and confident, and just killed her part, to Urban’s readily apparent delight.
Arena-country tends to rely on tired tropes. Urban managed to make Friday’s show a vibrant affair without trotting out the same old clichés. We should all take off our cowboy hats and honor that fact.