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 the seventies.

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 ended.

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.


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 drums.

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 theatre.

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.


That 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 Hits discs.

Hit The Ground Running segued into Days Go By before a tempo change with Sarah Buxton song Stupid Boy - a 2006 hit for Urban.

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.

The artist then heads to the western balcony mini-stage to deliver Kidman eulogies You're My Better Half and Once In A Life Time.

While in 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 Merritt.

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."


Suddenly Urban announces a break from a set list that has fermented over the long year of touring.

He 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 cowpokes.

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 their hands.

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.

This 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.

The camera 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 Cowboy movie.

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 the verdict?

Well, Urban has long proven his multi-instrumental prowess - especially his guitartistry, singing and songwriting that entitle him to true star status.

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 rescue.

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 country limits.

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 his labour.

So maybe it's hats off to a soaring star who doesn't wear one.

Review by David Dawson, Photos by Linda Di Nola

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