Live review: Keith, country’s Urban legend in Jacksonville

Florida Times-Union — I drive a Honda mini-SUV, couldn’t pick Tony Stewart out of a crowd of two and never once had anyone find my tractor sexy, and I’m still about twice as country as the fantastically popular Keith Urban.

Only the music business’ obsessive need to fragment itself puts Urban anywhere within miles of country; bizarrely, his meat-and-potatoes rock n’ roll no longer has much of a place on rock radio, MTV or VH-1.

The only safe harbor for a guy of his constitution – equal parts Seger, Garth and the Goo Goo Dolls – is the land of Music Row, where the word “rock” does not automatically conjure up thoughts of Nickelback.

But country is in desperate need of a personality and star-power transfusion, and Urban provides it to remarkable degree. Here’s an Australian dude who woos Nicole Kidman, whose shows possibly boast country’s lowest hat-to-section ratio, who covers Tom Petty and who arrives on stage to a friggin’ Jesus Jones song.

Supporters say those are the sounds of country’s long-standing walls being torn down. But a more cynical sort might say they’re the sounds of maximum crossover appeal, and that Urban is just merging marketable styles from all decades, authenticity be damned (watch how often the word “covers” appears in this review). iPods play Jesus Jones next to George Jones, so why can’t he? Somewhere, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash do loop-de-loops in their graves, while somewhere slightly warmer, accountants do them in corner offices.

Urban’s sound is pure comfort food, musical fuzzy slippers, a sonic Super Target. His titles go like this: Days Go By, Better Life, These Are The Days, But For The Grace Of God. His riffs soar where eagles dare. He’s obsessed with the images generally attached to conservativized country — blue jeans, blacktop, sunshine, ol’ buddies at the corner bar – but, as usual, they prove little more than stock art (when Urban sings Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’, you get the sense his emotional investment ends after the first verse, the one about the girl who’s crazy ‘bout Elvis, before all the bad stuff happens). He’s Bon Jovi with an occasional banjo and, somehow, fewer emotional gray areas; he sees a million faces, and gently rocks them all.

But all that said, Urban proves a performer of irrational likeability. Sure, Urban strains for the maximum potential audience (look at ya with the Sweet Home Alabama cover, ya big lug), plays crowd-yelling games and congratulates himself on his extended set times (Keith, I like you, but lots of bands play two hours, buddy). But his easy charisma, anthem-ready voice and above-average guitar chops make him an unfailingly engaging fella, even when he’s indulging in plodding monster ballads like Rainin’ on Sunday, his cover of Garth Brooks’ cover of Billy Joel’s You May Be Right, or You’ll Think of Me, a massive hit about breakups that clones much of Bruce Springsteen’s One Step Up. The end result is often potent but strangely detached. The place is packed and jumping when the lights go down, but plenty of folks scoot by encore time to beat traffic.

This is country in 2006 – pure, easy accessibility.

One of country’s biggest superstars never wears a hat, spins Prince on the P.A., covers Brooks and Dunn and grants himself a solid Eddie Van Halen-sized guitar solo 15 minutes four songs in. Lays down on the floor and everything. The ladies text dreamy notes to their friends, the guys nod appreciatively. Urban’s out to take mass appeal to new heights, and it’s working.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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