(Editor’s Note: In the second installment of CMT.com‘s two-part interview, Keith Urban talks about the club work in Australia that began the career path that led to his first headlining tour, CMT on Tour: Keith Urban Be Here ’04. The tour kicks off Oct. 8 in Muncie, Ind.)
When Keith Urban goes onstage during the dates officially billed as CMT on Tour: Keith Urban Be Here ’04, he’ll be continuing an endeavor that began at age 15 at pubs in his home country of Australia.
Although Urban is expected to provide a lengthy show, it won’t be like those gigs in Australia where he’d often play four or four and a-half hours a night.
“They were all different clubs,” Urban tells CMT.com. “Rowdy pubs. A lot of people didn’t want to listen. You had to make them listen.”
Asked how much money he made at those early shows, Urban laughs and says, “Enough to cover the PA rental.” If nothing else, though, the early club work convinced Urban he could make a living playing music.
“I remember playing in duo, and we made 250 bucks a night, split between us,” Urban says. “I think our lighting rental was, like, 60 bucks or something. We didn’t make a lot but enough to pay rent.”
As is the case for club musicians anywhere on the planet, Urban was expected to play all musical styles. “Lots of West Coast rock — Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt,” he explains. “Tons of Eagles, some Nicolette Larson. Stuff that kind of hovered in that area. And I’d always put in ‘Dixieland Delight’ by Alabama and ‘You Look So Good in Love’ by George Strait.”
After first coming to the U.S., Urban was somewhat disappointed in the level of live performances by newer acts he saw in Nashville clubs and in country music, in general.
“I thought that was the area that was lacking — the presentation,” he says. “Passion in the performance … I didn’t see a whole lot of that. And then Garth [Brooks] comes out and does his thing.”
In Nashville, Urban gained a local following for his regular performances at Jack’s Guitar Bar, a tiny club located south of downtown.
“I think my most memorable night was Kix Brooks coming to see us play,” Urban says. “The place didn’t hold many people. He’d been to some event with his wife, and he showed up as we were already playing. I remember seeing him at the door. … He didn’t know what the cover charge was. He pulled out this big wad of cash and stuck it in the guy’s hand and walked in the door. I think he gave us, like, 75 bucks or something. It was like, ‘Here’s a large sum of money, little man!’
With no seats available, Brooks finally found a spot on the floor right in front of the stage.
“That grubby old floor,” Urban recalls. “I just thought, ‘Holy hell! Kix is sitting right there on the floor.’ And he stayed there for the whole show. At the end of it, he came up and said, ‘We want to take you boys out with us for some shows.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, great. Sure, sure. Yeah, I’m sure you’ll be calling us.'”
Urban soon discovered Brooks was a man of his word after he called to hire them to open four shows for Brooks & Dunn.
As his stadium appearances at Fan Fair and the CMA Music Festival in Nashville have demonstrated, Urban’s previous work in clubs and pubs taught him how to entertain a crowd, regardless of the size.
“I think it [club work] teaches you a lot about how to structure a set list, to begin with,” he says. “Unless you’ve had lots of live playing experience, it takes a lot longer to figure out a set list and how to put your show together.
“Also, it teaches you how to read a crowd a little bit, too, if they’re sort of wavering a little bit. If they’re into it, then you sort of keep the wave going. … If they look like they’re not ready for a ballad — and there’s a ballad on the set list — then you’ve got to nix it and go onto something else.”
Regarding plans for the upcoming tour, he says, “The set list is favoring Golden Road [the album released in 2002] a little more than the new record. I don’t like going to see concerts where they go, ‘And here’s another one off the new album.’ Even if you’re a hardcore fan, you still want to hear a little more of the old stuff. We do about four new songs from the album and a bunch of stuff from Golden Road.
Is there anything else fans can expect from the concerts?
“Some guitar playing,” Urban jokes. “We have lights — and a projector.”