URBAN - ROD LAVER ARENA - 12 DECEMBER 2009
ROD LAVER ARENA
It was indeed
sardonic and largely prophetic to note the recorded music booming from
the tennis centre P.A system as the roadies prepared the tarmac for take-off.
The song - Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?
There were few in this swirling 15,000 capacity crowd from that ancient
demographic familiar with Hank's fifties country template.
The country pioneer certainly did not do it this way but his son Hank
Jr perfected his own rocking bluesy hybrid with sustained success since
This was more the arsenal of the hi-tech rednecks predicted in the 1993
George Jones album title track.
Yo, the age of huge video screens, international airport lighting systems
and a wall of sound that would have spanked the Spector sphincter.
Lionel Keith Urban is so successful he can now afford all the trappings
of fame to transform a concert into a multi-media spectacular equal to
moon landings and ancillary celluloid circuses.
That was evident from the moment the soft lights became strobe and the
guitar army invaded the stage as the star stalked the catwalk.
There he was - front and centre on the runway above the media mosh pit
- close enough to touch for those inclined.
And. yes, he was working up a sweat like Geelong grand final star Max
Rooke before his fitting entrée Hit The Ground Running had
From this most unusual vantage point in the third row in ground zero of
the tennis court we were geek guests inside Urban world.
It was the first date of the Australian leg of his Escape Together tour
that started a year ago in his adoptive homeland - the U.S.
The artist's ear accessories - matching shrapnel and hearing aids and
arm tattoos - were a glitter.
So were frequent guitar swaps - from acoustic to a vast array of Fenders
and electric siblings to fuel mood and tempo swings.
This was a celebration of a triumphant homecoming to a city where the
singer pulled a mere 14 paying fans to his first CD launch at the Prince
Patrick in Collingwood, 1991.
And despite no commercial airplay on the me-too metropolitan corporate
chains there were 15,000 frenzied fans - mainly young women - singing
every lyric, when not screaming.
Urban mania is not a new phenomenon down under - he once opened for Leann
Rimes at this venue before headlining The Palais and tennis court on subsequent
search and destroy missions.
Rimes now supports Urban in the U.S. on rare occasions when he is not
sharing top billing with major stars.
IN MOVIE SCREENS
At 42 the
multi-instrumentalist long ago paid his dues and now tops U.S. charts
with every single off his huge selling albums.
But Urban's turbo twang concerts are not just a sweaty showcase of his
radio friendly hits ignited by a phalanx of guitars, driven by pounding
This is a multi-media experience with every prance, gyration, wince and
nuance captured on video screens large enough to grace a seaside drive-in
And they didn't just capture the singer or featured band member on a six
way split screen when the occasion demanded.
There were also cameras panning the crowd reaction - especially the front
row flotillas of frenzied females - as the singer prowled the extremities
of the gigantic stage.
When Urban or his guitarists headed to the front or side stage parapets
so did the cameras.
But it was only the singer, preceded and followed by two security guards,
who led the charge to the front row of the balcony where another mike
sprouted from a mini-stage on the floor.
There was deja vu when the procedure was later repeated on high - half
way up the northern bleachers.
Urban may have gone Hollyweird but the music means justified the end -
a show to remember, even for cynics and critics.
Sure there was predictable polished patter about the enthusiastic audience
in the host city, how he should have returned much sooner and absence
of his thespian spouse and baby daughter.
But there was a genuine surprise about how the capacity crowd responded
by word-perfect performance of songs never heard on the wireless in the
unlucky radio country.
This was the brave new world of digital download, DVD and CD buyers, Pay
TV viewers and community radio cheerleaders.
was a visual explanation of sorts - what about Urban's music on the
night, you might justifiably ask?
Well, this is a massive choreographed stage production that leaves
little to chance or saboteurs.
Lighting, sound and timing have been micro-managed to ensure there
are no glitches.
So has the set list that has varied little since release of Urban's
9th album Defying Gravity after a concert DVD and Greatest
Hit The Ground Running segued into Days Go By before
a tempo change with Sarah Buxton song Stupid Boy - a 2006 hit
When they hit the Steve Wariner-Allen Shamblin road song Where
The Blacktop Ends it's time for Urban to sprint up the parapets
on the south and north side of the stage to maximise his reach.
then heads to the western balcony mini-stage to deliver Kidman eulogies
You're My Better Half and Once In A Life Time.
that sweet stanza he zeroes in on the heart again with Making Memories
Of Us - a song Texan tourist Rodney Crowell wrote in penance to second
singing spouse Claudia Church - and Only You Can Love Me This Way.
Urban punctuates the latter two with thanks for fans lucky enough to find
a "parking spot within 20 miles of here."
This resonates with those members of the audience who didn't arrive in
the vast array of stretch limos including the black Hummer ostentatiously
occupying the footpath as patrons later decamp.
One lass revealed to Urban she had to "park in Tasmania" and
the artist wished her well on her swim home.
There was no suggestion from Urban that she might need a nautical map.
It was that kind of bonhomie that permeated this Saturday soiree.
By now the camera work was so penetrating you could see inside Urban's
latest weapon of mass distraction - an acoustic guitar.
But, unlike Shotgun Willie Nelson's historic acoustic relic Trigger, there
was only one hole in the body.
Urban introduced multi-instrumentalist Brad Rice from Willie's adoptive
hometown Austin, Texas, and played with alt-country artists diverse as
The Backsliders, Accelerators, Whiskeytown, Son Volt, Ryan Adams and Tift
Guitarist Rice, like other band members, does a vocal cameo - he chose
blues standard Who Do You Love.
He guested on mandolin and banjo but toughens up Only You Can Love
Me This Way and Who Wouldn't Want To Be Me.
Audio breaks include grabs, replete with crackle, from American radio
as Alan Jackson and others are previewed.
It gives the band time for a brief reprieve before igniting recent hit
Until Summer Comes Around and slowing the tempo for an acoustic
entrée to Raining On Sunday with the video screen now amplifying
every farmers' wet dream - a rain storm.
Urban also introduces another long time band member Chris Rodriguez who
adds banjo to his guitar repertoire and chooses Ain't No Mountain High
Enough for his cameo.
Guitarist Brian Nutter from West Virginia precedes bassist Jerry Flowers
whose grab is Ain't No Sunshine.
These breakers are all accompanied by home videos of the musicians from
their childhood to adolescence.
"Jerry was with me in The Ranch when we sold seven albums here in
Melbourne," Urban quips.
"That sucked because we knew nine people here at the time."
Urban announces a break from a set list that has fermented over the long
year of touring.
introduces a guest vocalist - a bespectacled brunette who has won
an ARIA bequest worth a cool $50,000 and a spot in front of 15,000
Urban introduces Washington and asks where she hails from.
The slender chanteuse replies North Fitzroy and Urban detects boos
in the audience so asks for fellow North Fitzroy denizens to raise
There are few - except for Horsham refugee and PBS-FM Acid Country
host David Heard who feels his second row seat is probably not the
right platform for a show of inner northern suburban solidarity.
Besides Heard is not frocked up in the Brunswick Street black favoured
by Megan and her sisters in song.
becomes a light interlude where diminutive Urban towers over his
duet partner whose all black costume is not worn by the Rugby team
of his birthplace but a short frock that is bottomed off with a
matching pair of laddered stockings.
crew wisely shoot north of Megan's stockings as she duets with Urban on
the Billy Joel classic You May Be Right.
This is probably the most surreal cameo on Urban's concerts since he gave
exposure to a tiny tot guitarist in the U.S and marching drum bands and
a Colac mother and daughter on his previous Australian tour.
Urban is effusive in praise for his partner in rhyme and precedes his
next song Kiss A Girl by doing just that to her.
Then it's back to business with his drum and guitar driven I Told You
So, this time without the marching band of yore, You Look Good
In My Shirt and Someone Like You.
Nutter rises to the occasion on banjo solos on the latter and the cameras
reveal his tee shirt comes to us courtesy of Johnson Motors - established
1938 (just in time for World War II) - in Pasadena, California.
That's a different Pasadena to the Houston channel suburb that was also
the locale of Mickey Gilley's honky tonk, made famous in the, ah, Urban
Such riveting rhythms and crowd sing-alongs ended when lights dimmed as
the band decamped to await the crowd's customary cries for an encore.
They were, of course, rewarded.
Urban returned and poured his heart and soul into pathos primed ballad
Tonight I Wanna Cry.
They then picked up the tempo for barn burning Better Life - fitting
finale for a triumphant return concert and entrée to Christmas
with the family in this down under radio wasteland.
So what was
Well, Urban has long proven his multi-instrumental prowess - especially
his guitartistry, singing and songwriting that entitle him to true star
Band members are all multi-talented and exude enthusiasm - you can't snarl
on the big screens - and compliment their leader.
Their cameos on mandolin and banjo may be buried in the wall of sound
aimed at the pop mainstream but there's suffice to retain country fans.
The bluegrass content of his first return tour of Australia has long gone
- this is a different dance and Urban has new partners.
A modern concert is equal parts entertainment and musical excellence and
Urban is no slouch in either.
Satisfaction is in the ear of the beholder and there appear to be few
in this female dominated audience who were not sated in the walk, ride,
drive or swim home.
But did Hank do it this way?
Well, the icon did his time in the beer and wine mines of the day and
had a history of widespread substance abuse - copious pills for his back
pain and ruptured romances that ignited an aching for the booze.
And his hip-swiveling antics and raw lyrics were way ahead of their time
when he died at 29 on New Years Day, 1953.
The singer suffered for his sins half a century before Urban's two bouts
of rehab and a Sydney born Hollywood angel flew under the radar to his
Hank's genetics ensured his son Bocephus followed the family tradition
with loud and rowdy live shows.
But Urban, aided by modern audio and video technology providing a cool
conduit with new millennia audiences, soared way above and beyond the
He may have deviated from the roots of his raising but now has audiences
taking him places that Hank never dreamed of.
And the Urban cowboy only has one wife with whom to share the fruits of
So maybe it's hats off to a soaring star who doesn't wear one.
David Dawson, Photos by Linda Di Nola
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