Keith Urban, Nashville's Knight in Shining Ardor

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Keith Urban isn't Nashville chic. More like Nashville for chicks.

Not that there's anything wrong with that -- not with so many women responding so rapturously to Urban's emotionally expressive take on country music. (Or are they reacting to the dreamy good looks that prompted People to name Urban one of the sexiest men alive? Gotta be the music, right?)

On Friday, Urban's very arrival on the Verizon Center stage brought on a wave of ear-shattering shrieks. It was the sort of sustained, squeal-laden approbation that's generally reserved for teen idols, sexualized soul singers and Neil Diamond. The females who'd flocked to the arena hyperventilated. They held up signs professing their love for Urban and grabbed at his pant legs and tossed bouquets of flowers onstage. They clamored to get closer to the Nashville star, some even climbing atop the shoulders of their dates -- at least until security ordered them to dismount.

And they positively swooned as Urban sang song after (mostly) sensitive-guy song in that sweet, light tenor of his. Though his music can be tough and muscular -- particularly his rhythmic guitar work -- Urban specializes in lyrical vulnerability and gentle, almost gentlemanly romance. Hence, the title of his musically ambitious new album: "Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing."

Leave the chest-beating to Trace Adkins and his manly man ilk; no songs about honky-tonk badonkadonks here.

"I can see it in your eyes and feel it in your touch / I know that you're scared, but you've never been this loved," Urban sang during the opening rocker, "Once in a Lifetime."

During the acoustic ballad "Raining on Sunday," he declared: "Let the water wash our bodies clean / And love wash our souls."

The shuffling, sentimental "Making Memories of Us" included a promise: "I'm gonna be there to meet you with a warm, wet kiss." During the soul-pop song "Got It Right This Time," he sang: "I can't picture myself with no one but you." (Sorry ladies, but Urban dedicated the song to his wife, Nicole Kidman.)

There were tortured tear-jerkers and aching laments, too. "You'll Think of Me" was soft-rock breakup song. On the bereft piano ballad "Tonight I Wanna Cry," he sang of drowning his sorrows -- no doubt making his sponsor cringe, given that Urban checked himself into the Betty Ford Center just last year to deal with a drinking problem. Best, though, was the stirring "Stupid Boy," on which Urban's singing was deeply soulful and his guitar playing followed. Or was it vice versa? His parched voice began to reach higher and louder as the guitar notes turned more frenetic, until Urban was nearly screaming. There was a sublime desperation to the performance, which was flat-out brilliant.

Whether it had anything to do with country music is another matter. Urban has never been a pure country artist and, in fact, was initially rejected by Nashville. The New Zealand native eventually fell into the warm embrace of the country establishment, but he continues to color way outside the lines, both in the studio and especially in concert. If anything, Urban is a rock star with serious pop sensibilities and an affinity -- and aptitude -- for blue-eyed soul.

Friday's show included references to the classic rockers Pink Floyd and Free and covers of the Steve Miller Band ("The Joker") and the Violent Femmes ("Blister in the Sun"). Urban's own songs often featured a four-guitar attack, with plenty of power chords and riffs inspired by the likes of Mark Knopfler and AC/DC's Malcolm Young. There were multiple drum tracks but no fiddles or pedal steel guitar. And Urban's five-piece band looked like it might have just played Lollapalooza: Not a single cowboy hat in the bunch, though Urban did have tattoos on both arms.

Sure, some of the instrumentation leaned toward country, as did some of the songwriting. But even the boot-stomping "Where the Blacktop Ends" -- with its six-string banjo, mandolin, high harmonies and lyrical references to farms and fresh country air -- was, at its core, a rock song, built on a rhythmic groove and power chords. A little bit country, a whole lot more rock-and-roll.

And yet there was Urban, standing onstage near the end of the show, thanking country radio for its ongoing support. If this guy is country, then so is Jon Bon Jovi!

Oh, wait. Nashville now loves Bon Jovi, too. Almost as much as the ladies love Keith Urban.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company