in performance: keith urban and carrie underwood

Keith Urban sure knows how pack a sense of celebration into a final chorus.

Some 107 concerts after it began, the country star wrapped up his tour in support of his Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing album last night with an electrifying performance at Rupp Arena – his first there as a headliner.

Urban kept matters very lean and simple onstage with a workmanlike five-man band that easily filled every square inch at Rupp with a highly cosmopolitan sound that  approximated ‘70s rock ‘n roll more than even the most modern of country formulas. But the singer had plenty of help. In the seats were 17,000 fans that merrily cheered the show on from the moment a hydraulic lift hoisted Urban to the back end of the stage precisely at 10 p.m. amid the opening strains of Once in a Lifetime.

That wasn’t all. Around the stage – and the crowd, for that matter – cameras were on boom cranes, cameras were suspended from the ceiling and camera men were scampering around the stage like cocker spaniels capturing every rocking moment for a live DVD.

Not a bad deal, really. Play Rupp for only the second time (the first was as an opening act for Kenny Chesney four years ago) and you get a near sell-out crowd and a camera crew to capture “the whole crazy thing.”

Oh, yes, Urban got to share the bill with Carrie Underwood as part of the deal, too. That undoubtedly sold a few tickets, as well.

Underwood’s 70 minute opening set was as over-the-top as Urban’s was concise.

The Oklahoma-born American Idol winner opened with Flat on the Floor after being shot up through the stage floor (country stars must have a phobia of simply walking onstage anymore). After tearing down a walkway (in stilettos, no less) that sliced the arena floor in half and with a shower of guitar power chords egging her on, Underwood made quick business of making the show, at least its first half, her own.

Aside from an upper register that is still need of some taming, Underground had ample vocal sass to back the already rockish and anthemic Get Out of This Town and sufficient patience and phrasing to sell the hard sentimentalism of Just a Dream.

But, boy, was her set ever a production. Light beams dropped to the center of the stage like marionettes or else followed Underwood around like predatory drones. There were roughly three dress changes, four if you count the rip-a-way number she draped herself in and out of for the uptown I Ain’t in Checoteah Anymore. By the time a video backdrop of Las Vegas lit up for Last Name, you almost thought the high rolling setting was real.

Yeah, dedicating a song to her dog (The More Boys I Meet – you figure out the parallel) was cute and all. And hearing a relatively restrained Don’t Forget to Remember Me was a nice breather. But by the time Underwood tore into a cover of the Guns N’ Roses hit Paradise City, the Vegas attitude took hold completely.

Urban’s set was just as electric, but a lot more streamlined and far less frilly.

Shine was one of many vehicles for the singer’s expert guitarwork, which regularly approximated the popish swagger of Lindsey Buckingham. Where the Blacktop Ends mixed banjo and mandolin to sound like a G-rated Copperhead Road. And on Raise the Barn, a Hazard youth was picked from the crowd to play lead guitar while Urban switched to bass. The smiles artist and audience member beamed to each proved to be the most honest special effect of the night.


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