Concert review: Keith Urban keeps everyone happy at Merriweather Pavilion

August 9, 2013

The typical Keith Urban concert crowd has two main factions: Those who show up to stare at him and those there to stare at his guitars. Members of each group got their money’s worth at Urban’s fantastic Thursday set at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The 45-year-old hunk was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, but he has spent the past decade dwelling on Planet Celebrity.

Yet Urban hasn’t been overwhelmed by the cheesiness that surrounds him. His reputation as a guitarist’s guitarist has transcended the trappings because he can play as few pop stars can. He’s marketed as a country artist, but there’s not a genre Urban is unfit to pick in.

He brought lots of guitars with him to the Columbia amphitheater and delighted the numerous gearheads in the crowd by changing axes from song to song throughout the 110-minute set. So while most of the audience was singing out every word to, say, the equally mindless and melodic single, “Kiss a Girl,” some portion was content to look longingly at the beat-up parts guitar Urban had strapped on for that number, a beast that melded a Stratocaster body with a reverse headstock Telecaster neck, as he bent and quick-picked and just plain had his way with all six of its strings.

“Stupid Boy,” the “Freebird” of Urban’s songbook, thrilled fans of any stripe, also. Urban sang the opening stanzas of the mournful breakup tale while behind a wall of fog as the stage was being pelted by pastel spotlight beams and a triangle made of red laser beams hung in the background. When Urban emerged from the mist and the light show dimmed, a strategically placed fan at the front of the stage blew his beach-boy blond locks away from his face with all the contrivance that lifted Marilyn Monroe’s skirt skyward in “The Seven Year Itch.” Yet the song ended with a long, blatantly air-guitarable jam, with every screaming note played by Urban as overwrought as the verses he’d earlier sung. During this instrumental coda, the massive hi-def screens inside the pavilion showed what amounts to guitar porn, as Urban’s fingers flailed all over the fretboard of a vintage single-cutaway Les Paul Jr.

Urban introduced several songs from “Fuse,” a CD that’s due to be released next month. The likeliest hit of the bunch: “Even the Stars Fall 4 You,” a power-pop tune with a chorus so catchy you can overlook all the low-brow pickup lines in the lyrics (sample: “Girl, you can’t tell me you can’t see / The kind of spell you put on me”).

For his encore, Urban sat at a piano and crooned, “But for the Grace of God,” a 1999 ballad he co-wrote with ex-Go-Gos Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin that brought Urban his first No. 1 single. But this wasn’t a night for keyboards or slow jams. Before ending the show, Urban grabbed a Les Paul, walked offstage and strolled up into the cheaper seats yet again to play the pop teaser “You Look Good in My Shirt.” After one last guitar break, he removed the instrument from around his neck and handed it to a fan, similar to how Vegas-era Elvis Presley bestowed sweaty towels upon his flock. Folks who had come to gawk at Urban’s guitars and those drawn in by his hearthrobbishness joined together in swooning at the gesture.

McKenna is a freelance writer.

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