Keith Urban's latest tour in support of last year's reliably excellent Get Closer album played Toronto's Air Canada Centre on Saturday to a full house that one local paper claimed was 12,000 strong, while another stated there were 15,000 fans in attendance. That large a discrepancy is head scratching, but based on the mere sprinkling of empty seats I saw in the rear upper level I'll definitely choose to lean towards the larger crowd estimate, which had a noticeably larger female to male ratio. Whatever the figure was, everyone got their money's worth, as Urban tirelessly delivered an entertaining and lengthy 140 minute set of expertly crafted music that was backed with a solid stage production and oodles of good will and appreciation for his loyal fans.
Urban gets mostly categorized as a country artist, which instantly limits his appeal with people who won't even give anyone associated with the genre a chance (and I used to be one of them). Their loss. What would surprise most of the people clinging to that prejudice is how much of an element that rock plays in both his music and live shows. Personally, I consider him as much of a rock artist as a country artist, with a healthy dose of pop thrown in. Saturday's concert was basically a straight-up arena rock show, with loud guitars and Urban's admirable six string technical prowess given numerous opportunities to shine (like his extended solos on slower songs "Stupid Boy", "Raining On Sunday", and "Till Summer Comes Around"), and numerous arena rock audience participation staples implemented to the desired effect, even if some of them, such as the one where he splits the arena crowd into sections and does a call and response routine, feel completely clichéd for anyone who has seen more than five concerts in their life.
Get Closer's first single, "Put You In A Song", was a well-chosen show opener, brimming with a high energy that the crowd, which was raucous and highly engaged for the entire concert, was more than equal to matching in return. "Days Go By", which followed, only dialled things up a notch. Overall, it was a solid, well-paced setlist that showcased a healthy balance of new material with the old, and upbeat songs with ballads and moodier pieces. Highlights included "Till Summer Comes Around", "Sweet Thing", "Without You" (which featured a brief and tasteful classical guitar-style intro), "Better Life", and "Making Memories Of Us" (which was segued into after a snippet of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs"). Urban's band sounded great, backed by longtime drummer Chris McHugh, bassist Jerry Flowers, and relatively newer members Brian Nutter and Danny Rader on guitars and various other instruments.
Urban's lighting rig filled up the rear of the stage in a manner that brought to mind a looping roller coaster track, the focus being an off-centre giant loop filled with the main video screen that was well-integrated into the production (I enjoyed the door peephole view video played before "Sweet Thing", but found the use of some of the live images treated with a monochromatic filter to be a little overdone and artsy fartsy). The unorthodox lighting setup, which featured lights that moved along the tracks of the rigging, brought some refreshingly interesting lighting angles to the production. Smaller satellite stages on either side of the main stage allowed Urban and his band the chance to get closer to the sides of the arena and, as in past shows, there was another smaller stage on the arena floor. Luckily, my friend and I were right beside the smaller stage and got to enjoy three songs with Urban five feet away: "I'm In", "Jeans On" (ironically, my least favourite song of his), and a moving "You'll Think Of Me", where Urban switched to an acoustic guitar and sat down on a chair outfitted with an extremely low-tech looking microphone stand that looked beat to hell. The tiny stage platform, which rotated to give fans a 360 degree view, dramatically rose to about a dozen feet in the air as Urban came to the conclusion of the bridge section of the song.
Minor quibbles: a few songs played during the show are some of his dodgiest material, in my opinion, namely "Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me", "You Look Good In My Shirt", and the horrible "Jeans On", which are all from his Golden Road album that I otherwise quite enjoy. I'm not sure what it is about Urban songs involving apparel as the subject matter, but it's a bad mix for me. Then again, considering all three are setlist staples and fan favourites, maybe it is, in fact, just me. The sequence where Urban brought three audience members on stage for a sing-off during "Kiss A Girl" felt far too drawn out and cheesy. Also, while I can appreciate it's difficult for an artist to keep his stage patter unique from show to show, it'd be nice to hear Urban come up with some fresher material for his audience than what we occasionally heard, such as the "who's got the good seats now?" line we've heard from him before when he comes out to the second stage, even if it is a pretty good line. Of course, I bitched about him recycling that same line the last time I reviewed one of his shows, so perhaps I'm in no position to complain.
This was my second Keith Urban show and as hugely impressed as I am by his music and showmanship, what leaves as much of a resounding impact with me following one of his concerts is the genuine and heartfelt connection he makes with his audience, perhaps more so than any artist other I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot of shows in my time). Whether it's taking five minutes to acknowledge the numerous signs that fans made, pulling audience members up on stage (even if it kills the show's momentum a little), playing on a second stage in the middle of the arena floor, or making numerous trips through the crowd to give fans a chance to get as close as possible to him (geek alert: I was close enough to touch his shoulder when he went by me), it all goes a long way to strengthening the tight bond he has with his audience. During "You Look Good In My Shirt" he ventured out to about halfway up the lower bowl stands in the back of the arena and after singing part of the song he took off the Fender guitar he was playing, signed it, and gave it to a young girl, who obviously couldn't stop beaming. Now that is what you call a personal touch.
My friend Marcia and I skipped openers The Band Perry, although I somewhat regretted not being present when I read afterwards that the sibling trio tried to pull off a cover of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls". Damn.