UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- If anyone needed confirmation, here it is: After a turbulent past filled with rich personal bouts, Keith Urban is now a full-fledged rock star.
Urban opened his 24-city Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Carnival Ride tour with Carrie Underwood Thursday night (Jan. 31) during a sold-out show here at Mohegan Sun Arena and demonstrated quite fiercely his rock 'n' roll chops.
The tour brings two gigantic country stars together in a high-production extravaganza. Playing their hits, Underwood and Urban kept the crowd completely engaged through production and personality during the entire four-hour show.
Underwood started the show right on time, delivering a high-energy set of her biggest hits from her two albums -- Some Hearts and Carnival Ride. Rising from below the stage, she started with "Flat on the Floor" and "Wasted" in a sequined shirt and leather pants. "The More Boys I Meet" was a big favorite, with the crowd drenched in orange lights, bringing out the warmth of the song about her dog, Ace.
For "Jesus, Take the Wheel," Underwood emerged in a gorgeous blue Cinderella gown. She threw off the gown's train and sauntered during "I Ain't in Checotah Anymore," which brought down the house as the American Idol winner transformed from small-town good girl to big-city pop star.
Underwood posed heavily for her adoring fans on the main stage and on a long runway extending to a smaller circular stage at the other end of the floor. They snapped photos at will while she stayed static throughout much of the night, mainly swinging her hips and grasping tight at the microphone. She became most comfortable after ditching her elaborate costumes for a more casual shirt and jeans. "Twisted" -- a self-proclaimed favorite of Underwood's -- found her at her most playful, truly enjoying the rocker as she shook and swayed about.
"So Small" had Underwood in another interesting setup -- surrounded by white sheets attached to overhead lights, as if she stood in the middle of White Sands, N.M. The lights, which were manually lowered and raised, detached the sheets at once, creating a powerful effect at the climax of the song.
An encore of "Before He Cheats" brought the female portion of the crowd into a singalong frenzy, one that only served as a prelude to Urban's performance.
After a 30-minute intermission, Urban appeared with the ruthlessness of a freight train. A heartbeat accompanied a solar system backdrop as Urban's entrance onstage came via a virtual comet that turned everything white. While the crowd erupted, Urban jolted down from a raised platform, greeting the crowd with his infectious smile and effortless musical prowess as he broke into "Once in a Lifetime," the first track from his 2006 release, Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing.
Most impressive at first was Urban's setup. A high-definition LCD screen caught every last piece of stubble on his face and showed stage, the crowd and the energy in crystal-clear quality. Urban used the runway to his advantage, posing and playing while fans reached out to him. Urban seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
In fact, Urban was never in one place for more than 10 seconds. He bounced from center stage to both corners, then to the runway and circular stage, then to the edge of the stage to sit. During "You Look Good in My Shirt," Urban took the show into the crowd, landing a few rows up with his microphone before taking off his guitar, signing it and handing it to 15-year-old fan Leo Pelletier. Urban walked away with a smirk, as if he never planned the giveaway.
Another shock came during a pulsating version of "I Told You So." As a drum solo kicked in, the Hawthorne Caballeros -- a professional marching band based in New Jersey -- stepped out onto the stage to compliment the solo. The drumline amazed the crowd, which had been given singing orders all night from Urban with mostly strong results.
Never one to disappoint, Urban and his band took it to the circular stage for a more intimate, unplugged-style set. "You're My Better Half," "Making Memories of Us" and "You'll Think of Me" were performed on the small stage from stools, while hoards of fans raced to the bottoms of the aisles to snap photos of the Aussie.
Intimacy also made its mark toward the end of the night, as Urban dedicated the first song of his encore -- "Got It Right This Time" -- to his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, who recently was announced to be pregnant with the couple's first child. Before the song, Urban nailed the first minute of the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" on piano, with the crowd singing along.
Covers also popped up during some impromptu guitar work, as Urban giggled through the first few bars of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," among other hard rock standards. While these small bits of classic songs generated huge cheers, it showed Urban has the knowledge, look, charisma and talent to not only rule the country music world, but the rock 'n' roll world, as well.
No original demonstrated this better than his penultimate track, "Better Life." As he tore through a truly ecstatic version of his 2005 No. 1 country single, confetti showered the screaming crowd. With the LCD screen projecting Urban, playing hard, smiling from head to toe, it became apparent: Rock star Keith Urban is here to stay.
Tim Malcolm is a writer for the Norwich Bulletin in Norwich, Conn.