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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Urban's renewal tour hits its mark

The country artist, out of rehab, skillfully uses unvarnished style to restore career luster.

June 18, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Keith Urban's concert at Staples Center started right on time Saturday, but it was several months late.

If all had gone as planned, the country star would have been on the road much closer to the November release of his fourth album, "Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing," but instead he checked into rehab just before it came out, taking himself out of the picture at a crucial time for creating momentum for the album.

As a result, Urban is in a position he hasn't experienced since the days before his 2001 commercial breakthrough: with something to prove and ground to make up.

"Love, Pain," one of the more substantial albums from a mainstream country star in recent years, has sold more than 1 million copies, but Urban had become accustomed to 3 million. By another yardstick, he got only one nomination at the recent Country Music Awards.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Keith Urban: A review of Keith Urban's concert in Monday's Calendar section said that the singer-guitarist was once a member of Brooks and Dunn's band. He was not.

It's easy to imagine but impossible to know whether this bump in the road provided extra incentive, but Saturday's performance did seem to have an extra edge.

There's something doggedly ordinary about Urban's voice and vision, but he gets a lot of mileage from his directness and honesty. He connects with his audience on a genuine level, and everybody seemed to be having a great time at Staples, without being pandered to by the performer or suckered by bells and whistles. The show was refreshingly free of the stage ramps, fireworks, props, hydraulics, aerial tramways and other gaudy distractions that have cluttered country-music arena concerts in recent years. (True, there was a high school drum corps but only for a brief incongruous flurry.)

The dominant visual fixture was a screen that looked suitable for the main theater at the ArcLight. The performers, audience members and prepared visuals were displayed in strikingly rich images, though a millisecond lag between the real life and larger-than-life versions had a slightly disorienting effect.

Urban is a salt-of-the-earth, T-shirt and baggy-jeans guy, a boyish sex symbol at age 39, with floppy hair and heavy stubble. The singer, born in New Zealand and raised in Australia before moving to Nashville, is part of the country-music generation that doesn't agonize over embracing a range of pop and rock influences.

He's a skilled guitarist who started in Brooks & Dunn's band and has played on albums by the Dixie Chicks and others, and he seemed happiest Saturday when he was unfurling Allman Brothers-like solos and locking in with his five musicians, a group whose showiness was balanced by an unforced rapport and enthusiasm.

Using a walkway that stretched well into the floor section, Urban was able to build a bond with his fans that ranged from intense to playful.

During a set of several songs played on a small stage in the middle of the floor, he displayed a sign that was being waved by a fan: "Keith, you can kiss my wife if I can kiss yours." Of course Urban's wife is actress Nicole Kidman, but he went into the crowd to take up the fan on his offer. Back at the microphone, he had bad news for the husband: "Good luck on the other part of the deal, brother."

Musically, things were less consistent, with a couple of overwrought ballads, notably "I Can't Stop Loving You," slowing things. In contrast, another ballad from the latest album, "Got It Right This Time," was the most intimate moment of the night, with Urban alone at the electric keyboard and accompanied by a drum machine as he focused intently on the heartfelt vocal.

Overall, though, the show relied on his big, breezy, rock-influenced songs, such as his 2002 hit "Somebody Like You," "Who Wouldn't Want to Be Me" and the new album's "Once in a Lifetime."

Urban didn't allude to his recent misadventures until the encore and then only to say thank you "to everyone who's been so incredibly supportive of me."

He added that it was great to be touring again, but he had already been making that point for two hours.

richard.cromelin@latimes.com

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