"Wait, which song did you just request?" Keith Urban asked an audience member yesterday afternoon, halfway through an open rehearsal for his Ripcord World Tour. "'Homespun Love?' There are, like, four people who know that song. And they're all in this band."
Actually, even the guys in the band didn't seem to remember it. That didn't stop Urban from shouting a quick tip to the others onstage — "I think it's in E," he offered — and kicking off a shortened version of the song, a deep cut from his 1997 album with the Ranch. It was an unscripted moment, a sign that even during a tour that relies heavily on drum loops and lighting cues, there's still room to improvise.
Taking over a large warehouse space in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena, Urban and his four-piece band gave fans a glimpse of the Ripcord Tour that kicks off June 2nd. Like the album itself, the live show represents a technological leap for the singer, whose recent albums have found him merging guitar-driven country with synthesizers and other electronics. Onstage, a homemade keyboard rig sat near the drum riser, its glowing red buttons and miniature computer screens doubling as a visual representation of the music's new direction.
"I call it the Phantom," announced keyboardist Nathan Barlowe, who used four iPads, a controller and a tangle of cables to create the contraption. "It will do anything you want it to do. There's no limits. Want it to make a ham sandwich?"
No lunchmeat was served during the hour-long performance, but Urban and company did whip up a mix of retro and more recent material, covering a two-decade span of Urban's catalog in the process. From a reborn, revved-up version of "Where the Blacktop Ends" to a solo performance of "Everybody," the old standbys were refashioned into something new, with Urban switching between multiple instruments — including a six-string banjo, a Telecaster, a parlor acoustic guitar and several Stratocasters — along the way. The newer songs gave the musicians increased opportunities to stretch their legs, while the neon-blue beams of Urban's new light show conjured up comparisons to Def Leppard's Hysteria Tour. "Break on Me," "Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)," "Wasted Time" and "The Fighter" were among the nine Ripcord performances that'll dot the set list this summer, all played with the excitement of a group that's still figuring out how to adapt the album's layered sound to the stage.
Or should we say "stages?" A smaller platform will be located on the lawn at every show, giving Urban, drummer Seth Rausch and longtime bassist Jerry Flowers a place to knock out several tunes as a trio. Urban calls it a throwback to his club days. "That's what it was like, playing Jack's Guitar Bar back in the day as a three-piece," he announced halfway through the tour preview, after playing "You Gonna Fly" on a makeshift B-stage. More than a nod to Urban's less famous days, though, the cozy platform helped balance the larger-than-life moments that will fill the rest of the show, proof that Urban can still pack a punch without driving up the power bill.