A New Definition of “Urban Music” in Manhattan

He Plays Two Shows at New York City's Irving Plaza

NEW YORK — Here’s the first difference you’ll notice between a New York rock club and a Nashville rock club. In Nashville, nobody wants to stand too close to the stage, lest they be unveiled as (gasp!) a fan. But in Manhattan — and probably any other city — the prime location is up close, where the singer might just make eye contact with you, read your homemade sign out loud and then, best of all, sing your favorite song right to you!

About a thousand of Keith Urban’s fans got a strong sense of the community that country music is famous for during his Sunday night (Nov. 13) concert at Irving Plaza. At various times throughout the night, he good-naturedly teased two college girls who had written something rather suggestive on a poster, he tied a huge, red Christmas ribbon around his waist and he even kissed another man’s wife — at the man’s request.

It’s crazy what can happen when country music comes to New York City.

Urban admitted early on that he would be winging his two shows (the second takes place Monday), but nonetheless, his uncanny charisma engaged even the people in the back — scattered industry types, though most of the Nashvillians mingled in the VIP balcony. No doubt, some of them were wagering his odds at winning the CMA entertainer of the year — if not at Tuesday’s (Nov. 15) awards show, then sometime soon.

A few observations:

• The guys like Urban, too. If you’re in the industry, then you’re told to cater to a somewhat young female demographic. However, this particular crowd held just as many men as women, if not more. They didn’t scream as loud, but they were totally into it.

• Even after selling millions of albums, Urban must have had some fears that his audience might be more curious than hardcore. Wrong again. His eyebrows skyrocketed when the crowd immediately flipped out at the opening bars of “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me.” He didn’t even have to sing the first verse because they sang it for him.

• Irving Plaza took a chance on country this week. Posters tacked to the bulletin board advertised shows for a slew of bands that I’d never heard of — Ten Year Invasion, Funeral for a Friend and Piebald, to name a few. And what was with the table of free condoms? Not saying that it’s right or wrong, but … OK, it caught me off guard, that’s all.

• You know you’ve had too much to drink if you’re slow dancing/propping up your partner during the boisterous hit, “Somebody Like You.” Or, on the flip side, gyrating like an extra in a Trace Adkins video during “Better Life.” Or assuming that any appearance of a banjo means hosting your own little hoedown behind the soundboard, even if it sounds more like Stomp or Riverdance.

• It was also odd to see so many personal cameras in a club, with only a few pointed toward Urban. A lot of people traveled from out of state to get there, so it only stands to reason that people wanted a souvenir snapshot from this special concert.

Despite any distractions, though, Urban continues to radiate happiness. After seeing him play at least six or seven times, in a variety of venues, it is easy to believe that his good-guy grin and making-it-look-easy image is a major part of his success. That, and he’s a killer vocalist, especially on downbeat ballads like “Nobody Drinks Alone” and “You’ll Think of Me.” Other than perhaps playing too many fast songs in a row, and later, too many slow songs, it’s hard to find much fault with a guy this talented.

From the back of the room — my habits are hard to break — I still couldn’t say whether Urban or his dedicated fans enjoyed themselves more. It somehow didn’t sound like a rehearsed comment when he spoke these well-received words: “We’ve got to come back here more often!”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.