Sunday, September 29
One way to reverse engineer the perfect American Idol judge would be to just go to concerts until you find a bunch of people who used to watch American Idol clapping and having a good time at one. I like to think that’s how they found Keith Urban, who had filled Ak-Chin Pavilion’s parking lot with large pickups, unweighted minivans, and at least one semi by the time the opening acts were on stage.
Because if it isn’t, it worked out that way; Keith Urban brought out the ideal Idol viewer in force last night, playing crossover country for people who resent the usual country-music-fan stereotypes while they celebrate them.
I come from a city crawling with Midwestern country fans, and Arizona Keith Urban fans seem to have a lot in common with them: They talk a good, completely sincere huntin’ and fishin’ and churchin’ game, but they’re also mostly middle and upper-middle class professionals, talking about career advancement and wedding anniversaries and nice restaurants.
They’re fashion-forward, that is, it’s just that means cowboy boots and expensive-but-unripped jeans and leather vests here. Which makes sense–leather vests are expensive.
So are Keith Urban tickets, for that matter.
But Urban--like his polished-country fans--is nothing if not a pro; 20 songs later, anyone who values a Keith Urban song enough to buy a ticket in the first place will have gotten his money's worth.
His opening acts hit all the country notes, but Keith Urban himself is something different--he's the kind of country act who will not shock when his second song is an extended jazzy improvisation (or pseudo-improvisation) that facilitates his flirting with fans, asking them section by section to cheer, reading signs, and ultimately bringing particularly creative fans up on the stage. (The winning sign-owner, Lisa, was with a friend who'd survived cancer; surviving cancer, more than Keith Urban, got the biggest pop of the night.)
Keith Urban and his band are playing country-flavored music because it's what they grew up with, probably, and because it's a place where highly competent and not especially young white guys have big hits. But there's not a lot that separates these songs from their nearest non-country equivalents.
Live, especially, with most of the polish escaping into the air over Ak-Chin Pavilion before it hits the lawn and the particularly twangy guitar parts muffled by the electric lead, it's surprisingly difficult to tell what Keith Urban is playing apart from, say, The Fray.
That's not a compliment or a putdown; it just is what it is. The opening act mentioned Jesus and the south, but Urban, who's from a little further south still, kept things broader, singing well-crafted, dynamic pop rock with a vaguer implementation of the same doing-the-right-thing beats. I'm a bit of a country neophyte, and that might have actually made it easier for me to enjoy this--it hit the same part of me that digs the ruthless, calculated pop on Phil Collins' solo albums.
And who else is doing that? Now that Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers have grafted country affectation onto a spindlier, indie base, crossover country is more rock than rock--just listen to the first new song in Urban's set, a driving track called "Even the Stars Fall 4 U." Just look at the title. In the relentless middle of his set he covered The Who and Adele back to back, and it made perfect sense.
Country music, on this level, is an accent--it's a modernized version of the dramatic, polished, confident, dis-disaffected rock and roll that controlled the radio before post-grunge monetized angst.
For all the country stereotypes about tears in beers and dead dogs and broken-down trucks, popular country is the sound of a people who are totally confident in their lot in life. They're sad sometimes, and pissed off sometimes, and unemployed sometimes, but they're never even a little alienated.
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Critic's Notebook: Last Night: Keith Urban at Ak-Chin Pavilion The Crowd: People who probably paid cash for their huge trucks. Personal Bias: I don't like huge trucks and I would love to someday pay cash for a tiny hatchback. Overheard: So, so, so many people complaining about how far away they parked.