Keith Urban: Closer Quarters (2011)

The opening spread for this article in the July 25, 2011 issue.

Originally published as the cover story for the July 25, 2011 issue of Country Weekly.

It’s seven dates into his ambitious Get Closer World Tour and Keith Urban is reminiscing about a time when his stage setup wasn’t, shall we say, as advanced as it is now. 

“I remember doing a show in the late ’80s or somewhere around there, and we had no money for any sort of production. So I went to a hardware store in this little town and bought four of these pre-fab white-picket fences. They were only about 10 feet long and I took them back to the little place we were playing and hung them from the roof above the stage at really weird angles. Then I put colored lights shining through them down onto the stage,” Keith says, checking in a few hours prior to showtime in St. Louis. “I thought it looked kind of cool.”

Oh, how things have changed. While Keith may have been putting up actual fences to entertain the crowd during those lean, early years, he’s worked hard at taking them down for his current tour, replacing them with a series of ramps and side stages that allow him to get up close and personal with fans. “I’m constantly trying to keep the barriers broken down between us and the audience, so that it just becomes us. There aren’t huge fences, physically or metaphorically,” he says. “I like to present the stage as something unusual, a bit surreal, and make it a magical place for everybody.”

With a layout recalling a rock ’n’ roll amusement park, it certainly is that. The state-of-the-art lighting rig evokes a twisting, winding roller coaster, complete with moving “cars.” The requisite video screen is a splash of high-def color, an enormous 60-foot circle looming over the stage like a Ferris wheel on a seaside boardwalk. The stage itself sits as a pedestal atop a sloped half-circle ramp, designed so that Keith can easily walk into the crowd.

Or slide, as was the case on opening night in Biloxi, Miss. As many have seen on YouTube, the literally slippery slope got the better of Keith when he tried to bring up an audience member. He fell, catching his right hand in the grating around the stage, injuring his thumb. “The first thing I tried to do the next morning was make sure I could hold a pick. As long as I could do that, the rest we’d figure out. But it’s recovering quite nicely, thank God,” says Keith, clearly relieved. “It could have been much worse. The hand doctor I saw said that had it bent the other way, I’d probably have to have it operated on. But it hasn’t hindered my playing, which has been very fortunate for me.”

Ditto for his fervent fans, who have been looking forward to the AT&T-and-Samsung-sponsored tour coming to town since dates went on sale in December. By the time the trek wraps up in October, Keith will have visited 50-plus cities, playing more than two hours of hits plus cuts from his current album, Get Closer—such as “Put You in a Song” and recent No. 1 “Without You”—each night.

If there’s one thing Keith is not, it’s stingy. Despite his best intentions to tighten the show and make it more manageable than that of his previous tour, last year’s Summer Lovin’ trek, he actually succeeded in extending it. “I tried to make it a little bit shorter, but that was a completely fruitless attempt because it ended up longer,” he says, laughing. “It’s one of those beautiful conundrums where I’m so grateful to have songs that are difficult to leave out. It’s a quality problem indeed.” 

As such, Keith says the tour is the most physically demanding he has ever undertaken. During a preview show for media and fan club members in Nashville last month, it sure seemed that way. The guitarist was a ball of sweaty energy, bounding back and forth between the main stage and an ancillary stage, turning in workout-worthy takes of fan favorites “Days Go By” and “You Look Good in My Shirt.”

“It’s certainly a higher-energy show than we’ve done before,” he says, excitedly talking up the various side stages set up throughout the arena. “I’m literally walking through the crowd to get to them. I started doing a little of that on the last tour and loved it so much. It’s so basic and raw for me.

“I’ve always done that kind of thing,” he adds. “Even if I’d been in a little club with 20 people and I’m up on a little stage only big enough for a three-piece band. I’d jump off the stage and go stand on the bar and do a solo out there. [The crowd stages] are really just a bigger version of that.”

During Nashville’s CMA Music Festival, Keith conducted the ultimate test run when he played his way out to a tiny stage inside the sprawling LP Field. “It’s the first thing I did when I got to soundcheck that afternoon, figure out where we could put our little stage to see if we can get out to some of those people,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun for me, too, which is the thing that everybody forgets. I’m doing it because it shakes up the whole moment. The energy from the crowd is insane.”

But it wasn’t just Keith’s mad dash through the stadium at CMA Fest that had the massive crowd swooning. He also brought out special guest Jake Owen, whom he handpicked to open his U.S. tour dates. “I just like the way he entertains, and I thought that my audience would like him as a person,” Keith says of his reasons for choosing the singer of “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” (which was, in fact, the song he and Jake dueted on). “He’s really engaging of the audience and has a good spirit. He wants to entertain everyone and make them feel good. And I thought that’d be a great way to set the tone for the evening.”

For his part, Jake couldn’t be more excited to be Keith’s opening act. “I have always wanted to go on the road with Keith. He really inspires me as a songwriter, musician and entertainer. Keith is the real deal and one of the most amazing talents our genre has ever seen,” he says. “He’s been all over the map as far as his life, and it’ll be nice to learn from somebody who has been there, done that.”

Jake had his first chance to pick Keith’s brain during a gathering at the Urbans’ home prior to their CMA Music Fest duet. “We were having a dinner party at our house for about 12 people,” explains Keith, “and I thought it’d be a good time to get to meet Jake.” “A lot of the other people that were there, like Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley, he knew anyway, so I knew he’d fit right in. It was a chance to get to know him better.”

With dinner parties, country-music pals dropping by and, of course, his beloved wife, Nicole Kidman, and their two daughters, home is a place Keith hates to see in his rearview mirror. So much so, in fact, that he tailored the Get Closer Tour so that he’s never away from home for more than three days at a stretch. “I’m never gone for weeks and weeks,” he says, describing the tractor-beam magnetism of daughters Sunday Rose, who just turned 3, and Faith Margaret, born in December. “I feel the pull very strongly. When I’ve just left the house, I can feel the pull. It’s a beautiful pain.”

On June 25, Keith and Nicole celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, a milestone that Keith was prepared to spend alone because his wife couldn’t join him for his performance that night in Raleigh, N.C.

Or so she said. 

“I was scheduled to fly home that night, because she couldn’t make it out. And the reason she couldn’t make it is because she was planning a surprise of coming out,” Keith says, relating some of the details of their anniversary night celebration. The pair enjoyed a meal together—on wheels. “We had dinner on the bus,” he says. “Then I did the show and we flew home straight after that. We probably celebrated more so the next day, because we had a day off.”

A day off to spend with his beloved girls. And despite being the lone male in the Urban household, Keith says he doesn’t feel outnumbered. “I’m very comfortable in that family. It feels very easy to me,” he says, teasing that life on tour with his manly band—bassist Jerry Flowers, guitarist Brian Nutter, drummer Chris McHugh, and multi-instrumentalist Danny Rader—fills any testosterone quota he may have. “Being out here on the road with my band of merry men yangs the yin quite nicely, so I’ve got good balance in my life.”

Now if only he can keep it onstage. “What are the odds it would happen on opening night, you know?” Keith laughs of his Biloxi bruising, and says his capable crew is still tinkering with the stage as the tour progresses. “We had to do a lot of tweaks because we found, like with most things, you build your boat, and it seems right, but then you have to put it in the water and see what happens. I think a few of us took a couple tumbles! But we made a few adjustments and now it’s a much safer place.”

Yet with all its bells and whistles, it’s still a magical place for his audience, just as he had hoped.

“I try to use production in a way where we can take these songs to another place. I’m not trying to compensate for a lack of entertainment ability coming off the stage. We’re just trying to help us translate into these bigger environments we’re playing and heighten the whole experience for everybody,” Keith says. “I hope that’s what we’re doing. It certainly feels like it.”

Sidebar: Waylon’s Way

Spoiler alert: At one point during Keith’s show, a country legend makes a cameo. Waylon Jennings appears on the video screen to sing his against-the-grain 1975 hit “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” For Keith, a Waylon devotee, the snippet speaks to what he himself is trying to do as an artist.

“This particular song, philosophically, is really my career to a T. Waylon did his own thing, and it wasn’t to try and shake up the status quo, he just wanted to be true to himself. That’s what the song is about to me. It’s about allowing the evolution of country music to continue by being able to take on new forms and new presentations,” Keith says, citing the song’s revolutionary lyrics: “It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar / Where do we take it from here? I mean, what a great opening line for a country song! Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars, It’s been the same way for years / We need a change. . . . Dear Lord, put that on a sign at the front of Music Row. It’s a really powerful statement.”

And written by a man with an equally powerful guitar—the instantly recognizable leather-bound Fender Broadcaster that Waylon played throughout his career. In 2009, Keith’s wife, Nicole Kidman, surprised him with it, buying it at auction for $98,500. “I feel more like the current curator of it than the owner, because it’s such a hallowed piece. Not just in guitar-playing history or country music history, but in American music history,” says Keith, who used the guitar to compose two songs for Get Closer, “Georgia Woods” and “Right on Back to You.” “It’s just beautiful to play.”

Sidebar: Phoning It Home

Keith Urban may want to put you in a song, but you may also end up in one of his photos, thanks to tour sponsors AT&T and Samsung. The communications giants provided Keith with their new 4G smartphone, the Samsung Infuse, which the tech-savvy singer is using to document his experiences on the road and then upload to keithurban.net. In addition, fans can also visit a green-screen booth at each show where they can pose for a photo or appear in a video with a virtual Keith.

“We live in such a social media age right now,” notes Keith, “that not only is it the way people stay in touch with each other, but it’s also how they share music and experiences. So when Samsung and AT&T came along and said they wanted to present the tour for us, I thought it was a fantastic marriage,” he says, happy to offer his fans a new way to interact. “I have so many people come to our meet-and-greets who tell me that they’ve met through the music, and they’re from completely different parts of the country, and they’ve now become friends. I love that whole sense of connecting everybody.”

In fact, fans are encouraged to use their cameras throughout the show, to capture their own memories of Keith’s tour. It’s in stark contrast to the days when concertgoers were prohibited from bringing a camera inside the venue, let alone taking a photo. “It makes me think that the Grateful Dead were well and truly ahead of their time, allowing for bootleggers to record their concerts back then!” Keith says. “That’s where it’s all going right now, and I think it’s great. I know I’ve become a fan of certain bands, like [indie pop group] Foster the People, by seeing YouTube footage of them. I bought their record and really liked it, but then I saw footage of them live and I became a way bigger fan. And I wouldn’t have gotten to see that if someone hadn’t been recording with their camera phone.”

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