The future of live events has been one of the big question marks for the entertainment industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, with very little certainty about when things will return to some kind of “normal.” On Thursday night, Keith Urban offered up a possible glimpse at what the intermediate stages may look like, performing a secret show for health care workers at the Stardust Drive-In in Watertown, Tennessee, that entertained while keeping people safe inside their cars.
Urban and his team reached out to LiveNation concert promoter Brian O’Connell with the idea — “What he and LiveNation did last night was extraordinary,” Urban says — and got to work. They distributed car passes to Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center to give out to the hospital’s doctors, nurses, and other staff, in what Urban says was a show of gratitude for “the sacrifices they’ve been making for months.”
“Right now, those are the people we need to acknowledge the strongest,” Urban says, “and last night was such a great opportunity to do that.”
How long ago did you start planning the drive-in show?
Probably about a month ago. The idea for the drive-in was a no-brainer because of the car situation. Playing to people in cars was really the baseline of it. And the fact that drive-ins still exist? Who knew, man? I knew there were a handful of them around, but not to the extent that I started discovering them everywhere.
I was reading that there’s been an increase in business at drive-ins because of the pandemic, since we can’t really do the things we normally do.
Totally. And obviously from a performance standpoint, and what our requirements were — How do we play to people in cars? Who’s going to organize how the cars are all spaced out? How do we know the cars have good views? And the drive-in is built for every one of those questions. And then you add in the fact that pretty much every live performance you go see has a massive video wall behind the stage, well, hello, video screen! That massive drive-in screen, all you have to do is put a stage in front of it and you’re off and running.
How are you setting up for audio in that space?
We chose the Stardust Drive-In because … it’s not a big drive-in. We couldn’t play to a massive drive-in yet, because this was a proof-of-concept show. We needed minimal production in order to keep the crew minimal. So the PA was fairly small, the lighting was small, the crew was small. I had two musicians onstage, 10 feet apart from me, one of which is my track guy, Jeff Linsenmaier. He had dueling laptops up there and was somewhat of a DJ/EDM guy playing tracks. It was almost like karaoke, so we could have full tracks being played without there being drums, bass, and all those guys onstage. Then I obviously played guitar and sang. And I added in my keyboard player, Nathan Barlowe, who also plays a bit of guitar and he sings, and we were able to create a fairly good full wall of sound with just the three of us.
Is there a way that you could expand this show to be a full-band situation?
I think it’s [all about] how many crew are needed to make this thing happen that you’re seeing. So when you’ve got a drum kit with a bunch of mics and a bunch of different things, everything starts to go up exponentially, versus having a guy who’s got everything on tracks. But to your point, as we move forward, bringing in the band is something I would love to do. Particularly with the way I play, because I’m very free-flowing. The problem with tracks is you’re a little bit stuck to a set structure of songs, and I like to flow and jam a little bit, go with the moment. It’s hard to do with track stuff. Although we have figured that out as well; we have a way to edit these tracks on the fly [laughs].
Can you tell me a little more about how that works?
Thank goodness we’ve been doing this for a while, because it’s come in real handy right about now. And I also think we’re well past audiences standing there going, “Hey, wait a minute, I don’t think the keyboard I’m hearing is actually onstage.” Whatever. There are people onstage, they’re really playing. The person singing is really singing. They’re really playing. They’re really in front of me. It sounds great. What’s the problem? That ability to play in that mode has come in handy right now. So what we’ve been doing with tracks is my track guy has these two laptops onstage and he has all the tracks, but he’s edited them in such a way where he can extend choruses, verses, intros, and he can do it in real time, which is amazing. So if I feel like we need to break down here and go for a long guitar solo, he can do it. He just keeps looping pieces in real time. It’s crazy.
You recently announced that your new album, The Speed of Now, Part 1, would be coming out September 14th. What can we expect from that?
It’s something I’ve been working on for about a year and a half. Eerily enough, that title came to me last year.
It feels very prescient.
It’s bizarre. “Irony” feels like an insensitive word in this context. But the reason for that title was we’d just been touring internationally and I literally feel like everywhere I go in the world, humans, everything is just going faster and faster. We travel further and further. Airports are jammed. Everything is just insane and going faster and faster. We’re just human beings trying to keep up with this fucking computer in our pockets.
There’s a real evolutionary struggle going on between humanity and technology, there’s no question about it, as we barrel toward the singularity. I thought, what’s the endgame? Where are we going? It also felt like the present moment, the now — which is meant to be freer time — even feels like it’s got a speed. That’s the most sad irony of all. So The Speed of Now was the title that really fit this record and my commentary.