Keith Urban Dazzles IFCO Crowd

No matter how the record industry fares, Keith Urban won’t have to worry about finding work for the next decade or so. The way the crowd embraced him Tuesday night (June 3) at the International Fan Club Organization show, he can make a fortune just by sitting on a bare stage, singing and picking his acoustic guitar. Despite this decidedly low-tech approach, the young Australian had the audience in his pocket from the moment he ambled into the spotlight at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Preceding Urban on the tightly packed bill were Andy Griggs, John Berry, Steve Azar, the Wilkinsons, Jennifer Hanson, Eric Heatherly, Jimmy Wayne, Lila McCann, Dean Miller, Kim Patton-Johnston, Nashville Star contestants Buddy Jewell, Miranda Lambert and John Arthur Martinez and surprise guests Earl Scruggs and his A-team band.

Although the Ryman was less than half full, the audience compensated for the empty seats with raw enthusiasm. These were the hardcore early arrivals who had streamed into town two days or more before the official start of Fan Fair on Thursday (June 5). Under their benign gaze, no effort on stage went unapplauded, and Urban’s and Griggs’ efforts made them positively giddy. The show’s beneficiary was the St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis. As is customary, Joe Bob Barnhill led the infinitely versatile backup band.

Emceed with carnival gusto by music historian and TV personality Robert K. Oermann, the evening was one delightful performance after another. Miller — Roger’s son who now records for Universal South Records — contributed some wry humor his dad would have been proud of with the loopy, self-pitying honky-tonker, “The Gun Ain’t Loaded.” He said the song — whose refrain goes “The gun ain’t loaded, but I am” — will be released as a single within “a couple of weeks.”

McCann, who made her chart debut in 1997 with “Down Came a Blackbird,” has evolved from a gawky, braces-wearing teenager into a sexy chanteuse. She reprised her Top 5 hit, “I Wanna Fall in Love,” before bowing a soulful new song, “Back to Me.” Martinez scored big with his romantic ballad, “River of Love.” The crowd treated Jewell like a superstar, roaring its approval at the first mention of his name. Jewell, who won the Nashville Star talent contest, has completed recording his first album for Sony. He brought two of his children — “little Buddy” and Lacey — onstage to help him introduce his current single, “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song).”

Berry demonstrated that he’s lost none of his crowd appeal, whatever his fortune may be at radio these days. Both at intermission and after the show, the lines to his merchandise table stretched across the lobby. After inciting the audience into a sing-along with his 1996 hit, “She’s Taken a Shine,” Berry told an affecting story about his boyhood closeness with his dad. He then memorialized those golden days with his song “40 Again.”

Hanson opened the second half of the show, accompanied by a band that included her husband, singer-songwriter Mark Nesler. While her rendering of “Beautiful Goodbye” gave the crowd a familiar point of reference, it was her new single, “This Far Gone,” that supplied the real emotional voltage. It was the kind of bluesy rumination you could imagine Judy Garland moaning out — not that there was anything lacking in Hanson’s own reading, which was perfect. Don’t be surprised if this song eventually finds favor with a jazz audience. Hanson confided to the crowd that this was a particularly special evening: her [third] wedding anniversary.

The Wilkinsons — the father, son and daughter act — used the occasion to reacquaint themselves with fans and to deny the rumor that they’ve split up, even though daughter Amanda does have a solo deal with Universal South Records. The trio reprised its 1998 hit, “26 Cents,” and introduced a new tune, “L.A.,” from an album it hopes to have out this fall.

Wayne, a newcomer who has already scored a Top 10 hit with “Stay Gone,” earned a huge ovation for the song that was inspired by his beloved sister. He said the two had lived together as kids in a trailer and that one morning he awakened to the smell of smoke. Fearing the worst, he rushed to an exit, only to find that his sister had burned the birthday cake she was baking for him. Later, he said, he had to help rescue her from a bad relationship, an errand of mercy that eventually gave birth to the song.

Griggs turned in an impassioned five-song set, the first two elements of which were his own hits, “You Won’t Ever Be Lonely” and “This Ain’t No Practice Life.” He then told the crowd that his favorite kind of country music was the traditional variety and that he had persuaded one of its masters — Scruggs — to perform with him on the show. The fabled and still formidable banjoist joined Griggs on stage, accompanied on lead guitar by his son Randy Scruggs (who is also Griggs’ producer), fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Byron House. The assembled talents then proceeded to romp through the bluegrass with “Salty Dog Blues,” “Little Maggie” and the incomparable “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

By the time Urban appeared, the fans were in full ovation mode. Shunning backup musicians and electrified instruments, Urban simply sat at the front of the stage on a folding chair, sang and chatted with the crowd. It was a masterpiece of performance intimacy. Before Urban began his first song (“But for the Grace of God”), women throughout the auditorium were screaming, “Marry me, Keith” — to which the would-be groom responded amiably, “I’ll have six marriages before the night’s out. We’ll have to move to another state.”

When Urban got to the fourth song of his set, “Your Everything,” he told about arriving for a show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., just in time to hear his recording of “Your Everything” wafting from a church next door where a wedding was in progress. Thinking it would be a nice gesture to sing the song personally for the couple and their guests, he eased into the church — and was stopped at the door by the suspicious father of the bride. Finally, he said, he was able to convince the man of his identity and what he wanted to do. “I went in and sang it, and they loved it,” he reported. “I charged them $2,000. I’m just kidding. It was $1,500.”

Later on in his IFCO set, Urban invited a young girl from the audience to come up and pose with him for a picture. Introducing herself as “Brittany from Ann Arbor,” she promptly upstaged him by saying, “You told my mom you’d give her a pair of your pants.” Pausing for a moment to reflect on this revelation, he snapped, “Well, I’m certainly not going to give her the ones I have on.”

Just as he was preparing to end the show with “Somebody Like You,” a woman shouted “I love you, Keith.” “I love you, too,” he replied, “but I think we should see other people.”

Set List

Kim Patton-Johnson
“One Less Monkey”

Dean Miller
“The Gun Ain’t Loaded”
“My Heart Is in Your Hands”

Lila McCann
“I Wanna Fall in Love”
“Back to Me”

Eric Heatherly
“Urge to Run”
“Last Man Committed”

Miranda Lambert
“O, California”

John Arthur Martinez
“River of Love”

Buddy Jewell
“Abilene on Her Mind”
“Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)”

John Berry
“She’s Taken a Shine”
“40 Again”

Jennifer Hanson
“Beautiful Goodbye”
“This Far Gone”

The Wilkinsons
“26¢”
“L.A.”

Steve Azar
“End of Indianola”
“Waitin’ on Joe”

Jimmy Wayne
“Sara Smile”
“Stay Gone”

Andy Griggs
“You Won’t Ever Be Lonely”
“This Ain’t No Practice Life”

Andy Griggs, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Stuart Duncan, Byron House
“Salty Dog Blues”
“Little Maggie”
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

Keith Urban
“But for the Grace of God”
“It’s a Love Thing”
“Raining on Sunday”
“Your Everything”
“You Look Good in My Shirt”
“Where the Blacktop Ends”
“Somebody Like You”