ST. PAUL, Minn. -- After gigs at America's biggest Indian casino (Connecticut's Mohegan Sun) and one of its biggest colleges (Penn State), Keith Urban's Escape Together World Tour hit the ground running here Thursday night (May 14) at Xcel Energy Center.
He was literally running through the crowd of 15,483. OK, he tried to run, but the path to the tiny stage at the back of the arena was clogged with fans grabbing at his tight plaid short-sleeved western shirt.
"Who's got the best seats now?" he asked as he finally faced the fans in the $20 seats at the bowl end of the X. (None of the women on the main floor watching Urban from behind were complaining, either.) It was time to get intimate as he sang "Once in a Lifetime," starting out with just his voice and electric guitar before the drums kicked in from the main stage. Then he switched to an acoustic guitar and a stool, sitting down to play a song "for anybody who's getting married, thinking of getting married, wishing they were getting married or got no intention of getting married." Of course, that song was "Making Memories of Us."
After making that memory for the folks in the cheap seats, the man married to Nicole Kidman scurried back to the main stage with a convoy of security men clearing the path. It was time for Defying Gravity, as Urban did three consecutive selections from his recent No. 1 album. "Standing Right in Front of You" was smothered in dreamy doo-wop harmonies. The melancholy, slow-burn "'Til Summer Comes Around" evoked Tom Petty and Don Henley, tied together with a moody Urban guitar solo. "Sweet Thing" was peppy fun, short and to the point with no extended instrumental fireworks.
But this Gravity mini-set redefined the stage visually. The backdrop had been five vertical panels (with blinding lights in between them) that formed a ginormous HD video screen. For "Summer," the panels were repositioned as sort of a roof over Urban and his band. Then for "Sweet Thing," the panels tilted at an angle so fans could see giant close-ups of the headliner and his three-day beard.
Throughout the 125-minute performance, the giant backdrop featured a variety of images: Urban performing live, each of his band mates live on a separate panel at the same time, video clips (shots of St. Paul landmarks, vintage wedding footage, etc.), photos (including each of the band members as babies, children and long-haired young adults) and special effects (rippling water, psychedelic patterns).
The stage was set up with various microphone stands so Urban could sing on a platform on either side, on a runway extended from the stage or, of course, front and center. Oh, he jumped into the audience again during the encore, performing without a platform.
His 20-song set featured six numbers from Defying Gravity and a full array of his hits. Unlike his previous headline tours, the guitar hero didn't sneak in any riffs from classic rock songs or even do any full covers. He did let four of his band members sing a cappella when they were introduced, so fans got a little taste of Willie Dixon, Bill Withers, Diana Ross and Boston.
Throughout the generous evening, the Aussie axe man bolstered his guitar-hero reputation, most notably with his bent blues intro to "You Look Good in My Shirt," his soaring solo at the end of "Raining on Sunday" and a revved-up version of "Stupid Boy." All told, Urban set the bar high for country concerts in 2009, as the judges on American Idol might say. Speaking of which, Urban will perform on Idol next week with finalist Kris Allen.
The Zac Brown Band kicked off Thursday's concert with the bearded frontman singing part of the opening to "Different Kind of Fine" without his microphone working. He quickly recovered, though, and the tight, versatile Georgia group set the table for Urban just fine, especially with the closing hors d'oeuvre "Chicken Fried."
Jon Bream has been covering music for the Minneapolis Star Tribune since 1974.