News Column

Urban legend: A lot of rock in Keith's country

August 10, 2014

By Rashod Ollison, The Virginian-Pilot

Aug. 11--VIRGINIA BEACH -- Make no mistake: Keith Urban is a rock star.

Sure, he's a marquee name in country music, one of the genre's biggest acts. But everything about his persona -- from his disarming good looks and tattooed muscled arms to his pop-glossed vocals and excellent scorching guitar work -- carries the hallmark of a contemporary rock idol. The affected twang that shades the Australian performer's songs is the musical equivalent of a cheap artificial sweetener. The formula leaves a bit of an aftertaste, a reminder that it's not the real thing.

But none of that mattered Saturday night at Farm Bureau Live at Virginia Beach, where Urban gave an engaging performance. Studded with subtle influences ranging from emo to lite funk, each song was more or less a showcase for Urban's dazzling, intricate electric guitar solos. His four-piece band anchored him with a solid sense of groove as he breezed through his surging, formulaic hits, one segueing exhaustively into the next like a programmed playlist. And Urban's energy remained high throughout the two-hour show as the packed house stood the entire time.

Urban opened with the thumping "Love's Poster Child," which set the tempo for most of the show. The sleek stage design, ablaze with blinding lights, auspiciously announced Urban, who wore tight black pants and a V-neck T-shirt, as he stomped around in laced-up boots, tossing his tresses out of his face and playing a mean guitar.

After three similar songs, the pace slowed a little with "Only You Can Love Me This Way," a ballad redolent of the cloyingness typical in such country songs. But Urban undercut it with an arrangement that was more aggressive, packing a pronounced rock edge, than the tepid studio version.

Although Urban performed like a well-oiled professional machine, he managed to charmingly ingratiate himself with an enthusiastic audience dominated by women ranging from college freshmen to well past the age qualification for AARP membership.

Urban invited a woman who said she was from Knoxville, Tenn., onstage with him. Her poster, "I Want to Dance On Stage With My Tan Bare Feet," had caught his attention. She pulled off her boots and socks and boogied to a song Urban and the band briefly improvised using the message on her poster as the lyrics. He signed a fan's guitar from the lip of the stage while he sang. He later pulled onstage a girl in a bubble-gum-pink hat and matching cowboy boots who stood stock-still next to him as he belted and played guitar.

Urban also shared the stage with a young Virginia Beach woman who had won a chance to sing Miranda Lambert's part of the hit duet "We Were Us." In a black cocktail dress and red cowboy boots, the blond woman was no Lambert, seeming understandably nervous next to Urban's megastar power.

Afterward, he eased back into his hits -- essentially retreads of '80s power pop with country flavoring, which Urban pulled off more convincingly onstage than on his albums. Some of the songs had very little, if any, country shading. With its haunting atmospheric arrangement driven by a slow-crawl programmed drumbeat, "Come Back to Me" is pure emo-pop. To underscore its noir-like drama, Urban sang it under a shadowy lighting scheme that suggested a lonely foggy night.

By the time he got to the raucous "Days Go By," Urban had worked his way through the crowd and performed the song on a platform at the opposite end of the amphitheater near the lawn seats. He strummed his guitar, shook his bangs out of his face and sang while smiling, revealing magnificent teeth -- and looking very much like a rock star.

Rashod Ollison, 757-446-2732,


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