Yes, people, Keith Urban has shorter hair. Get used to it. Yes, he is returning to American Idol as a judge for a second consecutive season. But he's not abandoning his main job.
Urban remains a regular on the concert trail, playing mostly long weekend stretches. He hit the stage Saturday night (Jan. 11) at Target Center in Minneapolis with the house lights still on and no announcement. He sauntered to the front, picked up a banjo from its stand and began picking. One by one, his band members joined him for a sprightly instrumental that we'll dub "Lights On."
Then Urban segued into "Long Hot Summer," an ironic opener on a night when 30 degrees outside felt balmy to Minnesotans after a week of below-zero temperatures.
Winter isn't going to change Urban and his Light the Fuse tour. Over two hours and 12 minutes, he offered a slew of hot guitar solos, lots of emotional vocals, plenty of interaction with fans (including a singalong of wordless sounds), two remote stages, a handful of covers from different eras and genres and enough energy to heat all the homes in Minneapolis this month. And he raised one big question: Why doesn't he win entertainer of the year trophies anymore?
On Saturday, he started in fourth gear, tearing through "Long Hot Summer," "Put You in a Song," "Sweet Thing," "I Told You So" and "Somewhere in My Car." He downshifted for "Stupid Boy" and then made a pit stop.
Urban picked up a handheld spotlight, shining it on fans and studying their handmade signs and finally inviting one fan onstage. He took a selfie with her and then seated Tara from St. Paul in a recliner, front and center on the stage, and asked her to choose a song from a list of requests. She opted for "Where the Blacktop Ends," and Urban remarked, "It's such an acoustic song." He then accommodated her with a solo acoustic version.
Exit Tara and enter Little Big Town, one of the night's opening acts, who joined Urban for "You Gonna Fly," with all five of them huddling on a small triangular platform extending from the front of the stage. Exit LBT and enter Nicole Kidman. Well, Mrs. Urban appeared only in the video clip on the giant screen as her hubby sang "Without You" live.
Next the spotlight shined on drummer Chris McHugh for a big booming solo which served as a heavy introduction for the peppy pop of "Kiss a Gir,l" during which opening act Dustin Lynch joined for a deep-voiced verse.
Time for Urban to exit -- the main stage, that is. As his band played the unmistakable synthesizer intro to the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," the superstar headed to a small stage at the back of the arena. Once there, he finished singing the rock classic and then alternated presenting some of his hits ("Days Go By," "Better Life") with covers (the Bangles' "Manic Monday," Adele's "Rumour Has It" sung by bassist Jerry Flowers). Demonstrating he loves him some country music, too, Urban partied with Blake Shelton's "Boys 'Round Here" as he made his way back to the main stage, slapping hands with fans along the path.
Guitarist Danny Rader welcomed Urban back to the big stage by singing fun.'s "Some Nights," which invigorated an already amped crowd.
"You guys are crazy tonight, I'm telling you," Urban told them.
Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild joined Urban for "We Were Us," complete with some sitar-sounding guitar licks from the main man. Then he unleashed a stinging, soaring guitar solo on the ensuing "Little Bit of Everything," a song that could describe his expansive guitar vocabulary which embraced everything from bent blues notes to rip-roaring rock.
On "Somebody Like You," his guitar served an extra purpose -- as a location for a portable camera that allowed the 11,000 fans to get up close with his fingers on the fretboard and the word "Fuse" burned in the guitar headstock. Of course, guitar and banjo aren't his only instruments. For the encore, he played a piano (with "Fuse" emblazoned on it) on his own "But for the Grace of God" and REO Speedwagon's "Keep on Loving You."
To defuse that vibe, Urban invited fans to use the flashlight apps on their cellphones for "Tonight I Wanna Cry," a pretty, simple ballad with its special lighting effect. He changed the mood again with another cover, Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven," sung by sideman Brian Nutter.
The scene then shifted from karaoke to chaos as Urban scurried into the crowd, found his way to Section 132 (my section, thank you) and rocked out on "You Look Good in My Shirt." As fans pawed him, he autographed his electric guitar and handed it to a fan. Talk about Urban cool.
Once back on the stage, he picked up another guitar and ended up playing while on his back. What could he do for another encore? Stick around to sign autographs and shake hands with fans in the front of the stage.
Lynch opened the evening with a few of his own songs, including "Hurricane" and "Cowboys and Angels," as well as covers of David Lee Murphy's "Dust on the Bottle" and Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places." Next, Little Big Town harmonized on their hits, including "Boondocks," the duet "Your Side of the Bed" and "Pontoon," which Kimberly Schlapman dedicated to the Land of 10,000 Lakes -- even if they are frozen.
Jon Bream is music critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of Prince: Inside the Purple Reign, Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time and Neil Diamond Is Forever: The Illustrated Story of the Man and His Music.