LOS ANGELES — Keith Urban is calling his current jaunt the Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy World Tour, though it’s quite the misnomer. The pain is minimal, and the show isn’t particularly nutty either.
In fact, when Urban played Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Saturday (June 16), it really proved to be just one big love fest. Urban was quite enamored with soaring, arena-rock guitar solos played high on the neck. The set was dominated by happy, shiny songs of optimism, and the room was full of people just itching to sing along.
Taking its name from Urban’s latest album, Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, it’s a noticeably different tour than Urban has mounted before — one geared very much to the larger venues he’s now able to command. When he was appearing in mid-size theaters a few years ago, “You’ll Think of Me” and “Tonight I Wanna Cry” were gut-wrenching performances, steeped in loneliness and venom. They worked, in part, because the house was small enough that one could still feel like Urban was simply an artistic extension of themselves.
In an arena, however, the artist becomes more of an icon and has to push harder to reach a more expansive cavern. Urban helped bridge the distance with a gigantic video screen that brought viewers in the back just as close as those in the front rows, focusing on his sweat-mangled bangs and even highlighting the pores in his upper cheeks. And a catwalk that led into the center of the venue’s floor cut the gap with a large portion of the crowd.
Much like Kenny Chesney, with whom he toured earlier in the decade, Urban used the setting less as a means of exploring modern life than as a way to provide escape. Instead of Caribbean sands, Urban’s songs take place on gridlocked city highways and in stressed-out, 40-hour workweeks. An earlier country singer such as Merle Haggard would’ve used those images as a platform to rail against the cigar-chomping guys who dole out skimpy paychecks or a government that makes Social Security an iffy proposition. In songs such as “Better Life,” “Where the Blacktop Ends” and “Days Go By,” Urban fashions those images as threads for uplifting self-transformation.
To be certain, Urban transformed some of his songs from their more familiar recorded arrangements. “Raining on Sunday” became a solo, acoustic piece. “I Told You So” was treated like a swatch of 1980’s Brit pop — Big Country meets Rod Stewart — and “Tonight I Wanna Cry” received a “Tiny Dancer”-ish piano intro.
But the bulk of Urban’s two hours on stage was devoted to buoyant melodies and scratchy rhythms, with ample time for encouraging the audience to engage in singalongs.
From the burning guitar solos to the blasts of confetti to the cover of a Phil Collins song (“Can’t Stop Loving You”), the concert had all the earmarks of a pop show from the ’80s or early ’90s. With his scruffy visage, pierced ear and tattoos, Urban certainly looks the part of a rock star, and his recent stint in rehab only adds to the image.
Urban addressed that period in his life during the encore, thanking “everybody who has been so incredibly supportive of me the last eight months.” He seemed to underscore the point during “Somebody Like You” when he made special emphasis of the lyrics “don’t want to take this life for granted like I used to do.” Urban also gave a nod to his personal life by dedicating “Got It Right This Time” to his wife, Nicole Kidman, who was not in attendance at the L.A. show.
The Wreckers, the duo of Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp, opened the show with a half-hour set in front of a farmland backdrop. Harmony played a big role in their sound. They tended to gravitate toward tones reminiscent of the Everly Brothers, but they had moments when they sang in wider intervals and sounded like more than two voices. While the musical portion of the show was solid, they interacted surprisingly little with the audience.
Urban meanwhile delivered all the cheer with a five-piece band that seemed just as happy to be there. They behaved as actual buddies, rather than hired hands, and the good vibes tended to rub off on the patrons. While L.A. drivers rank among the least friendly in the nation, some ticket holders at the end of the show chose to wait in the aisle and allow entire rows of people to get a step ahead of them in heading for their cars.
Yes, the pain in Urban’s Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy World Tour might be missing, but if Los Angelenos can be that friendly, his joyful approach does have some very crazy effects.