No country music was played over the PA in the half-hour before Keith Urban’s new album was premiered last night at Manhattan’s Stage 48. The nightclub played songs like “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” “Crazy in Love,” “California Love” and “Sexy Back,” until, mid-way through the hour, they reached “Sun Don’t Let Me Down,” Urban’s new collaboration with Pitbull and Nile Rodgers. The eclectic tune has a four-on-the-floor beat, disco rhythm guitar and a rap about attempting “the adult version of truth or dare.” People seemed to be feeling it, but even as banjo twanged under the verses, you had to ask: Had the venue still not played any country?
Ripcord, Urban’s crossover-curious LP, comes out Friday, but industry types (upstairs) and Tidal contest winners (downstairs) had all assembled for a surprise show that didn’t seem to surprise anyone. The stage and the cameras probably gave it away. For the first hour and a half, the couple hundred people inside mingled beneath a giant projection of the record’s cover, which is itself a giant picture of the singer’s face, black-and-white except for gemstone-blue eyes, with the expression of a man who has achieved the nirvana of perfect country-pop fusion.
In this image, he looks sort of like a cult leader, breaking the fourth wall the way Deepak Chopra claims he can levitate. As soon as he reached the microphone, he commanded the crowd with the power of one. At Madison Square Garden, Urban will move while he plays, but in this tighter space he redirected that energy from his legs to his guitar, shooting his fingers to the bottom of the fretboard for a series of song-closing solos.
The show opened, like the LP, with “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” the first song announcing an end to frivolity and the second cataloguing things that shaped the singer’s life. For the first three minutes of “John” x3, Urban built an Americana bonfire out of Pepsi bottles, TV dinner trays and Don McLean 45s; during the last two, the band changed keys and burned it all to the ground with a double-time coda not heard on the original single.
When it’s time for the Ripcord world tour, this might become the grand finale, but at last night’s one-off gig it cleared the way for 12 more songs, only four of which were new. “Sweet Thing,” off Defying Gravity, culminated with Urban giddily rapping the chorus of “New York Groove” — in a bit of an Ace Frehly-meets-Broadway style. “Somebody Like You,” off Golden Road, expanded to include both the chorus of “1999” and a long bout of call-and-response scatting. During “Raise ‘Em Up,” a duet off Fuse, Urban nailed Eric Church’s slight growl while lights unintentionally highlighted each of the four zippers on the front of his pants.
The rest of the band, also dressed like guys who play in bands, included not just a guitarist, bassist and drummer but a utility infielder who switched between guitar, keys, electronic drums and synth. The synth even appeared to be placed backwards, so that the audience could see exactly what buttons he was pushing. The device got plenty of use, but it was most present on the final song, “Wasted Time,” which employs an EDM riff for a celebration of lost nights spent singing “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Was this country? Everybody in the room seemed to think so. Or at least, no one in the room seemed to care.