Keith Urban gives an energetic performance at the Nationwide Arena

Keith Urban is at the potentially precarious stage of a musician’s career, 20 years from being the next hot new act, and not yet a venerable old gold guaranteed to automatically fill arenas.

And judging by his exhilarating performance Friday at the Nationwide Arena — which, if not sold out, was still close to the crowd — he’s exactly where he wants to be.

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Urban seems to thrive on live performances and making the audience feel as comfortable in this huge space as he does.

Speaking in his native Australian accent, as opposed to the well-rehearsed American country accent he used for years to sing, at the start of a solid and energetic set that never wavered, he promised “For the next two hours, I’m going to do a utopian experiment in this area.

And he delivered, making sure to include those in nosebleed seats as well as those on the floor, moving through the crowd for an acoustic set and stopping frequently, but not long enough to lose momentum. , to chat and joke.

Keith Urban performs to a packed house Friday at Nationwide Arena.

It was a carefully crafted but unassuming show, making good use of video screens and a few strobe lights, but not letting bells and whistles get in the way of the music.

Live, Urban amplifies the energy of the most placid ballads. He’s not one to sit down and languidly strum a guitar. Even an acoustic version of the soulful breakup song “You’ll Think of Me” took on an unexpected dramatic flair — and even a hint of comedy — in the concert.

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Those familiar with Urban from recordings rather than live performances — judging by a show of hands at Friday’s concert, about half the audience — were likely surprised by the number of rhythmic changes, as well as by the frequent increase in tempo, when these songs were performed. Direct. The song selection, which focused on the singer’s hits, was perhaps unsurprising, but the reinterpretation of these familiar songs brought them to life.

A fan holds up a sign with the lyrics to Keith Urban's song Brown Eyes Baby during a Friday night concert at Nationwide Arena.

Urban’s incredible guitar work is also probably surprising. Not one of those singers who uses a guitar primarily as a prop to deliver musical bona fide, Urban treats the instrument as an extension of body and voice, not showing off but frequently launching a short, sizzling solo. It’s also a playing instrument: in a haunting version of “Long Hot Summer” – in which Urban also stopped to blow several times in an air horn – he interpreted certain passages by tapping the microphone and the guitar .

Urban works with great backing musicians, who double as backing vocals, and to his credit, he lets them soar. If they don’t all have a great time playing together, they certainly make for a convincing impersonation. One of the pleasures of the concert was that Urban, rather than making the usual superficial introductions to the band members, gave everyone a chance to shine separately, whether it was performing a song or doing a drum or vocal solo. keyboard, in a context that made the most sense. .

Ingrid Andress opens for Keith Urban at a Friday night concert at Nationwide Arena celebrating Urban's 2020 album, The Speed ​​of Now Part 1.

Urban uses country music as his home base, sticking to its traditions, but he also stretches and plays with it. He’s known, of course, for pulling songs like “Wild Hearts” into rock, but he’s also capable of getting funky, with songs like “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” or drifting to through soft R. & B in a song like “God Whispered Your Name”.

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This approach allows for a welcoming and inclusive performance, full of small and large delights.

The concert opened with sets from two singer-songwriters two decades younger than Urban.

Ingrid Andress, who joked she had “the most Swedish name in country music”, began with a brief, confident and comfortable set that understatedly showed off her considerable range. Dressed in a Dolly Parton touring jacket, shorts and tennis shoes, and occasionally moving on keyboards, she swept through songs providing crisp snapshots of different stages of various relationships, from the playful “Lady Like” and assured to the quietly heartbreaking “Seeing Someone Else” to a ferociously bluesy cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” to a sweet and hopeful “Feel Like This.”

Shadows from stage lights are cast on the floor as Tyler Hubbard opens for Keith Urban during a Friday night concert at the Nationwide Arena.

Andress was followed by Tyler Hubbard, one half of the recently disbanded duo Florida Georgia Line. With a straightforward manner and an engaging twang, Hubbard deftly rose to the challenge of integrating new music with older music more familiar to audiences, often paying homage to beer and small town life, with a point highlight of his set being a duet with Andress on Florida. “Meant To Be” by Georgia Line.

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