Keith Urban is known for singing and writing quite a few big pop country hits — hits that he proudly paraded out before a packed Times Union Center Saturday night. But he should be getting more credit as a rock ’n’ roll guitarist.
Yes, rock ’n’ roll.
While most artists on modern country radio spend most of their time these days channeling hard rock, it’s usually in the southern, Lynyrd Skynyrd vein. But Urban is playing a much different game. Throughout his two-plus hours on stage, Urban was not only the band’s vocal leader but its VIP instrumentalist, taking all but maybe one guitar solo. He spent most of the evening channeling Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn, playing long, heavily distorted sustaining notes while running around practically the whole arena throwing off rock star pose after pose.
Maybe this is fitting, as his songs are more introspective than the typical modern country hit, less concerned with southern traditions and more with love and loss (he is from New Zealand, after all). Either way, this full house was ready to rock, and ate up the performance, country or not.
Beginning with “Put You in a Song,” Urban hit the crowd hard to start. “I Told You So,” which immediately followed, added a more “country” sound with banjo and acoustic guitar, but still turned into a high octane rocker.
A ballad didn’t show up until “Only You Can Love Me This Way,” the fourth song in (fifth, if you count a snippet of “Boondocks”). Here, Urban switched from Stratocaster to acoustic, showing off nuances in his playing that were only hinted at when he was playing electric.
Throughout the evening, Urban’s backing band provided punchy, hard-hitting support. Bassist Jerry Flowers and drummer Chris McHugh deserve special mention — Flowers played with a pick for most, if not all songs, which meshed perfectly with McHugh’s thumping rhythms to create a powerful wall behind the rest of the group.
Highlights included the fun and frivolous “Jeans On,” during which Urban went into the middle of the floor on a raised platform. He stayed out there for “You’ll Think of Me,” another ballad. “Georgia Woods” was another strong number (and perhaps the best showcase for Urban’s guitar heroics), from Urban’s latest album and tour namesake, “Get Closer.”
This was a true show, through and through — during “Kiss a Girl,” Urban brought four fans up on stage for something of an “American Idol” singing competition, judged by audience cheers. There were the usual sing-alongs, on “Somebody Like You,” and a goofy covers set toward the end featuring Tom Petty, AC/DC and others. And any guitar players in the audience were surely jealous of one lucky young woman when Urban handed her his Telecaster at the end of the main set.
Florida singer Jake Owen got the already nearly full house moving with a set that leaned more towards pop rock than country — even when the band pulled out a banjo on “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” the title track off his latest album. He opened strong with a pair of laid back rockers, “Anywhere With You” and the chant-along “Yee-Haw.”
From here the set progressed through a mix of mid-tempo slow burners — “Wide Awake,” “The One That Got Away” and “Startin’ With Me” — which all passed by without much variation in sound. But the audience didn’t mind, especially the female fans, who hung on Owen’s every word as the singer worked his crowd to the fullest. “Eight Second Ride” closed out the set with slightly more of a bang, leaving the crowd primed for Urban.