Keith Urban is a peculiar superstar. Take away the rugged good looks, and you'd still be left with a talented guitarist who, Tuesday night, gave every impression he'd be just as content jamming in the studio as headlining the rodeo before almost 60,000 adoring, possibly hyperventilating fans. In fact, Urban began playing guitar at age six, and made a decent living in Nashville as a session hand for the likes of Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks before anyone ever had the brilliant idea to stick him in front of a camera. According to his allmusic.com bio, one of Urban's principal influences is Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, and it showed both in his own deft fretwork and the effortless interaction between the front man and his band. Only the banjo player looked younger than Urban, no spring chicken himself at 42, and the grizzled bunch of veterans stayed well within the pocket of contemporary country - read: classic rock played in whatever key it is that lends just a hint of twang - but their chops alone elevated frothier fare like opener "Kiss a Girl" and Journey-like ballads such as "Stupid Boy" to something beyond assembly-line Nashville radio drivel.
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Showing off his "Waylon Telecaster" (making its live debut), Urban prefaced "Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me" with a verse of Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way." Although his voice was a little thin to stand up to Waylon's hefty baritone, it was a nice gesture, and if the song's gritty roots-rock wasn't quite up to the explosive level of, say, prime Blasters, it had more than a trace of Joe Ely - who, coincidentally(?), once covered "Hank" with Uncle Tupelo. As a front man, Urban was a little harder to read. He wasn't shy about flashing a roguish grin as wide as the Australian Outback, and said all the right things about being happy to be there, but behind the microphone he almost came across as distracted - like he couldn't wait for the verse or chorus to be over so he could step away and start throwing down with the band again. Even when he hopped offstage for a "Tim McGraw Victory Lap" during "You'll Look Good In My Shirt," he brought his guitar with him and kept strumming until he reached the "Chute Club" seats (the ones on the field), when he began leading a parade of enthusiastic female Spring Breakers around the arena, leaving them behind to climb through one of the rodeo chutes and sing a few bars from the stands. The song had pretty much gone off the rails at that point, but it was fun to watch. Urban's charisma and musical talent were enough to carry him past lyrics that weren't much to write home about at all. They weren't as borderline intelligence-insulting to people whose life's ambition goes beyond marinating their brain in Bacardi or bringing the house down at their neighborhood dive's karaoke night, but they were mostly run-of-the-mill plastic poetry about being sad a summer romance has ended, moonlight canoodling and not taking life for granted.
Solid subjects, no doubt, but all Aftermath couldn't help thinking that if we tried copying lines like "We could roll with the punches/ We can stroll hand in hand/ And when I say it's forever/ You understand" ("Only You Can Love Me This Way") onto, say, a birthday card, the absolute best we could ever hope for would be the most epic rolling of eyes we've ever seen. We can't speak for the women in Reliant, though - they didn't seem to mind at all, and we did make a mental note to try out "You'll look good in my shirt" sometime. HOWEVER, the screams following "Shirt" hadn't even died down before Urban broke out "You'll Think of Me" like a gut-punch in the middle of a tickle fight. Unlike Urban's other songs Tuesday, the acoustic ballad was harsh and sad - despondent, even - a bitter fuck-you from a guy who knows he's a long way from better off. As both the lyrics and music bled catharsis ("It seems the only blessing I have left to my name/ Is not knowing what we could have been"), the message was crystal clear: This guy knowing he'll be equally difficult to get over is cold, cold comfort indeed. It was like something Steve Earle might have written before he settled down - it's the song that first made pay attention to Urban when he performed it on the 2006 Grammys, but we had no idea hearing it live would be nearly as affecting. For his part, Urban went on his merry way to close out with a couple of conciliatory arena-rockers with feel-good guitars and come-here-baby lyrics, "Somebody Like You" (which we could almost hear Kings of Leon recording) and bouncy, banjo-laced "Better Life." Flashing that movie-idol grin, he headed back into the crowd while we were still trying to shake off "You'll Think of Me." Still are. So well played, Mr. Urban - in more ways than one.