“We got a week to get it right — no pressure.”
Keith Urban struck a deadpan tone after a hitch Thursday at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium at an exclusive show — well, not a show, really. He opened a rehearsal for his “Get Closer” tour, slated to open June 16 in Biloxi, Mississippi, to about 500 fans, radio executives and music-industry professionals, running through 10 songs in a 70-minute window that included a few flubs and a couple songs in which he forgot the words.
Need a roadie to relocate the mic stand? Too bad. Urban had to move that equipment himself after his high-energy rocker “Long Hot Summer” from the main stage to the runway for the ballad “Making Memories of Us.”
“It’ll be much smoother on Thursday night,” Urban laughed.
The setlist — which was only a portion of what he’ll roll out on the AT&T/Samsung-sponsored tour — kicked off with a short a cappella section of “Put You in a Song,” then mixed such chestnuts as “Days Go By” and “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me” with newer cuts from the “Get Closer” album, including “You Gonna Fly” and his current single, “Without You.”
Video allowed Urban to collaborate with Little Big Town on “Boondocks,” and three members of his backing band got a chance to romp through pieces of classic-rock staples by U2, Tom Petty and AC/DC.
Urban also employed a couple of methods to get closer to the crowd, doing a short set at a smaller stage at the other end of the arena floor and moving through the audience to give away a guitar he just finished playing.
Urban’s fans are familiar with that move — it’s become something of a signature element of his previous tours after he left the stage to play lengthy solos in different parts of the building.
“That really came about from one night realizing it was really hard to get back [to the stage] with the guitar,” he said after the rehearsal. “I went out into the crowd and it was easy, because no one was expecting it, and then once I was out there, they go, ‘Oh, well, he’s gotta go back.’ So then it was really hard to get back because they sort of jammed the area, and I thought, ‘I should just leave the guitar.’ So I bought a cheap guitar in the town we were in and gave the guitar away. It was such a liberating feeling.”
One guitar he won’t be giving away — and won’t even play on the tour — is a Telecaster that was formerly owned by Waylon Jennings. The late Country Music Hall of Famer had a connection with the rehearsal hall-a day after authorities raided a recording session in search of cocaine in 1977, Jennings made a surprise appearance at a Willie Nelson concert at Municipal, proclaiming “I didn’t do it!”
Jennings appeared again at Municipal at the rehearsal through video footage of his classic “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” It linked multiple generations — Hank Williams, Jennings and Urban — and symbolized the genre’s ongoing struggle to maintain authenticity.
“I have a deep, deep love for country music,” Urban said. “I’ve been playing it since I was 6, but I’m always curious about where can it go? Where can it go next? How can it evolve and move and flow and still have a sense of dignity, but remain relevant because it’s got a message to carry? It’s got to be able to evolve at any given time, and I thought that song is perfect for that.”
Urban’s stage and presentation demonstrate how much country has evolved. The sound of his uptempo material was as thunderous and powerful as some of the rock bands that have played Municipal over the decades — including Journey, Def Leppard and Soundgarden — and a steel-frame rollercoaster lighting design that Urban called “impressionistic” was much more elaborate than the staging Williams or Jennings employed.
That staging comes with a price. A certain amount of logistical choreography is required in big-production efforts to keep the lighting and sound crew coordinated with the artist. The goal for Urban is to keep as much spontaneity as possible with a show that is, as he said, “in the moment and just on the edge of disaster.”