KEITH URBAN’S RIPCORD TOUR GOES OUT WITH A BANG

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     The U.S. leg of the ripCORD World Tour may be gone tomorrow, but I’m thrilled I got to see it while it was here today. Here being Hershey, Pennsylvania on the last weekend of Keith Urban’s 2016 tour. Keith is always on my ‘must see’ list, and having Brett Eldredge and Maren Morris open for him this year sweetened the deal. You’d be hard pressed to find a stronger lineup that comes anywhere close to the musicianship and vocal talent on this bill. Keith tends to surround himself on tour with like-minded artists whose intention is to bring it every night. His opening acts get to watch the veteran work, and by the end of the run, they’re better for the experience. It isn’t easy, when you’re not a rock band, to bring enough energy to fill an arena and electrify an audience. What I learned from this show is that it doesn’t always take a multitude of amps and guitar hero showmanship to move an audience. In each set, there was at least one song that needed no more power than what the singer and a single instrument brought to it. Whether it was an acoustic ballad or a musicians showcase, I was entertained from the opening song to the final bow. Everything these three artists had to give was left on that stage, and as an audience member, I’ve never left a show feeling more genuinely appreciated. The ripCORD tour stop in Hershey, PA unfolded something like this……

     morris-maren-heroThe Giant Center in Hershey, PA sits adjacent to Chocolate World and Hershey Park. In a city that calls itself “The Sweetest Place On Earth,” the smell of sugar is in the air. The recently crowned CMA New Artist of the Year, Maren Morris, opened her set with a most appropriate ode, “Sugar.” It happens to be the first song on her debut album, Hero, and perfect for this setting. As with most opening acts, it’s a short set and a limited amount of stage room to make a statement. Fortunately for Maren, the power of her voice transcends the space she’s given, and her band packs a punch. There was no fluff in her set list. Hero is loaded with songs that are both fun and powerful, and we were given a fabulous mix. “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” and “Rich” showed us Maren’s tongue-in-cheek, sassy side. She turned a little more serious in “I Could Use A Love Song,” a favorite of hers, before stopping traffic with an emotional performance of “Once.” That pulled the audience in completely, and once she had our undivided attention, she finished with her crowd-pleasing radio hits, “80s Mercedes” and “My Church.” How refreshing to see a young singer with so much soul in her voice who writes songs that demand an expressive performance. And on that note, there are 14 songs on Maren’s debut album, and she wrote or co-wrote every one. With so much substance in her set, confidence in her voice, and a rock solid band backing her up, she deserves the hallelujah and amen she’s asking for. Preach sister! There’s a congregation of fans waiting to hear a lot more from you in the future.

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     If you’ve never seen Brett Eldredge in concert, you’ve missed one of the best entertainers on the road. He’s old school, and by that I mean he doesn’t rely on a lot of technological wizardry to wow an audience. His stage setup is very simple. Nothing to take away from the essential elements of a great show – a spectacular voice, great songs, and an impressive band of musicians to lift that voice and the music to performance level. A band plays. Brett and his band perform, and their set was performance art. Just two songs into his set, Brett gave a shout out to his band and made it very clear that this was not a singular effort. As if he were introducing the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, he put his band members on the marquee with him, and deservedly so. Jesse Tucker (guitar), Greg Carillo (guitar), Quinn Messer (bass), Alex Wright (keys), and Caleb Gilbreath (drums) turned out to be stars in their own right, and when you put Brett Eldredge in the center of that musicianship, you will indeed fall in love to the beat of their music.

     eldredge-brett-illinoisBrett has two albums to draw from for his set, his debut, Bring You Back, released in 2013, and the followup, Illinois, released last year. The bulk of the set list represented the dynamic songs on his home-state-titled, Illinois. He opened with a video that served to set the scene for “Lose My Mind,” followed by the enormously energetic, “Fire.” Jesse’s guitar playing took center stage on this one, only to be matched in intensity by Brett’s arena-filling voice. The interaction between Brett and Jesse was electric, and led to the shout out he gave his band at the end of the song. I was already cheering! “Time Well Spent” was another musical burst of energy that demonstrated how well Brett plays off of his band members. He gave a shout out to his other guitar player, Greg, during his exceptional playing on this song. In the video for “Drunk On Your Love,” Brett offers flowers to the girl he’s imbibed on. As he sang this one, he threw single roses into the crowd near the stage while scenes from the video were shown overhead. Throughout the show, he used video footage sparingly, and only when it served to further illustrate the lyrical intent of the song.

     The rest of the show demonstrated the diversity that Brett Eldredge is capable of. His voice alone is spotlight worthy, and his knowledge and respect for the great singers who came before him is evident in the content of his set. He dismissed the band for an acoustic interlude that was simply Brett, a guitar, and an astounding song choice. There aren’t too many male singers who could or would take on the great, Etta James. He did her proud with his rendition of “At Last,” leading into a section of his set dedicated to treating women right. He prefaced “If You Were My Girl” by saying, “No girl should ever be treated like hell,” and the authenticity in his message was clear in his heartfelt performance. He brought the band back for “Mean To Me,” and had the audience light up the arena like fireflies to set the mood. Playing off that feel good sentiment, he got us all dancing to the “Beat Of The Music.” The ebullience of the crowd at that moment carried him into “You Can’t Stop Me,” a song he recorded with Thomas Rhett. He threw in a snippet of “Get Lucky” from Daft Punk and showed off some dance moves with his guitar players.

     eldredge-brett-wanna-be-that-song-album-coverHaving recorded the video for “Wanna Be That Song” at his beloved Wrigley Field in Chicago, he poured his heart into the vocal performance. From there, he literally got down on his knees for the intense, “Shadow.” It was a “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” combination of Brett’s ability to absorb and deliver the emotion of a song. What he’s feeling, you feel, and the euphoria is a high. He ended the set with his first number one single, “Don’t Ya,” and everyone singing along. Brett Eldredge has a charisma on stage that works because of the integrity behind it. He gives props to his band, thanks Keith Urban, applauds Maren Morris, and offers grateful appreciation for the fans. His voice is his instrument, complimented by the talented musicians he’s chosen to surround himself with. “That smile has got me spinnin’ around” is the feeling he leaves an audience with, and our reply to this engaging performer is, “Know what you’re doin’ baby don’t ya, don’t ya.” Insert standing ovation here!

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     Keith Urban has legions of fans all over the world. If you’ve ever been to one of his live shows, you know why. Certain things are standard at a KU show – great songs, epic guitar playing, way above average musicianship from his band, consistent interaction with the audience (no matter where you’re seated), and the star of the show giving everything he’s got for the entire length of his set. He will likely be the first on and last off the stage when the night is done. What he does in between is entertain like no other. He’s had 17 years of a solo career in the U.S. and eight album releases to draw from. This show included songs off seven of them, with Ripcord being the centerpiece. The most unique aspect of this comprehensive live show is how Keith honors the original recording while using the platform he has to do something unscripted. In Keith’s featured interview with Guitar Player magazine for the December issue, he talks about the flexibility he has on stage while playing with a click. He can freestyle entirely or deviate briefly and then come back. With Keith’s considerable playing chops, being in the moment is what keeps things fresh and exciting for everyone. Each show is like a fingerprint, as no two are alike. It’s the exhilaration of a free fall until you pull the ripcord and the parachute opens and things are back on track.

     urban-keith-ripcordThe show opened with the lead track off Ripcord, “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today).” A panoramic video screen and a row of 13 spherical lights set the stage for simple accompaniment. The spotlight tonight would be trained on the singer and collective musicianship. Lights overhead burned summer gold for “Long Hot Summer.” Slowing things down, he played the first of several Ripcord hits in the set list, “Break On Me,” before taking it back to “Where The Blacktop Ends.” This song off his 1999 debut got a major rock-sounding revision, which included a killer ending! At this point in the show, Keith took note of the signs in the audience, spying one that requested singing a duet with him. He invited the young woman on stage to sing “Somebody Like You.” Turned out she’s an aspiring singer and did quite well with the song. Keith is a master at creating such special moments for fans at his shows. He takes the time to notice the signs people are holding, whether in the pit or at the top of the arena. This is a hallmark of a KU show.

     urban-keith-blue-aint-your-colorFrom this point on it was a nonstop series of creating musical moments in the show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone work harder on every song. “Somewhere In My Car” got the adrenaline pumping, but “Boy Gets A Truck” took it to another level. The energy coming from the guitars on this was enough to pull you out of your seat. For those not already standing, they were now. And from one way of reaching the audience, Keith demonstrated another with his intensely expressive, “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” He wraps the strings of his guitar around your heart on this one and the vocal was mesmerizing. “You Gonna Fly” was another older song that sounded completely new again. Picture a darkened stage with a single, smoky spotlight illuminating the outline of a rock star with guitar hugging his body. He sings the opening lines of the song with a guitar playing somewhere in the background. When the lights come up and the band joins in, the entire audience was ready to fly. Continuing with another surprise opening, we were back to the smoky spotlight for “Days Go By.” Joining Keith in the spotlight were Nathan Barlowe (synth), Danny Rader (guitar), and Jerry Flowers (bass) for an A cappella intro singing the first few lines. These four could easily moonlight as a barbershop quartet. Again, a fabulous reworking of an older hit. As promised, Maren Morris returned to the stage to sing Miranda Lambert’s part in “We Were Us.” Those were big shoes to fill and she nailed it.

     urban-keith-worry-bout-nothinIn every show, Keith gives the audience a moment that is entirely theirs. Ours was the unrehearsed debut of “Worry ‘Bout Nothin’,” the closing track on Ripcord. His band ran it at soundcheck for the first time together, but he wasn’t there. As expected, he didn’t miss a beat, and we appreciated the organic nature of the performance. With the video playing overhead, Keith turned “Cop Car” into a Hendrix-like moment. This time the smoky spotlight included “The Phantom” for the opening, but as the song progressed, Keith had an authentic rock star moment. As I sat watching him, completely pulled in by his playing, it suddenly looked and sounded like a Hendrix moment at Woodstock. The way he was playing consumed the attention of every person in the arena. It was a flashback taking place in the present, and KU put his authentic stamp on it. What a moment!

     The introduction of band members is also an Urban staple, only he goes a step further than just naming them. Nathan Barlowe, Danny Rader, and Jerry Flowers were all given solo opportunities that included vocals. Nathan Barlowe is a multi-instrumentalist who created the instrument he plays on stage called “The Phantom.” It’s a 4′ long box that holds four iPads and a mixing board. It enables him to take samples from Ripcord and play them in real time. When he’s not working the machine, he plays several other instruments and contributes vocals. Guitarist, Danny Rader, is an award winning multi-instrumentalist who was this year’s winner of the ACM for Specialty Musician of the Year. He also sings and does BGVs during the show. He’s been on tour with Keith since 2010. Jerry Flowers was an original member of the band Keith formed when he first moved to Nashville, The Ranch. He played with a broad range of other artists before rejoining Keith on the road in 2005. He’s a singer/songwriter and plays bass for KU with occasional BGV duties. Seth Rausch played drums for Little Big Town before joining Keith Urban’s band. His solo opportunity would come later in the show.

     urban-keith-the-fighterCollaborations are something Keith’s done a fair amount of, and he had to get creative to pull off the next two songs in the set list. He described the idea behind the writing of “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” and stated the lyrics like poetry before launching into the song that featured Nile Rodgers and Pitbull on the album. Pitbull’s part was included in the track, but there was a solo guitar section Keith played live that seemed organically improvised in the moment. “The Fighter” is a duet he sings with Carrie Underwood on Ripcord. She recorded her part on video so the footage could be used in concert. It played on the panoramic screen overhead alongside Keith’s live image from the front of the stage. Personally, I liked it much better than the holograms that are sometimes used in such situations. Playing in various spots around the arena is something Keith does regularly during a show. As he said when he traveled to the small stage near the back, “Who’s got the good seats now?” The setup was just large enough to accommodate a drum kit and a standing microphone with room for Keith, his bass player, and Brett Eldredge, who joined him later. With Seth on drums and Jerry on bass, they performed a killer version of “You Look Good In My Shirt.” The improv instrumental section in this was fantastic! After saying his guitar was getting too heavy, he signed it and gave it away midway through. Brett Eldredge joined him on the back stage for “Somebody Like You” with a snippet of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” inserted in the middle. It’s live music, so why not?

     urban-keith-john-cougar-john-deere-john-316Back on the main stage, they continued with “Little Bit Of Everything” followed by an incredible mix of songs that began with “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Keith introduced Seth Rausch in the middle of this, which led to a very cool drum solo, before switching to John Cougar Mellencamp’s, “Jack & Diane.” From there the lights on the stage turned to red, yellow, and green as the familiar groove of Bob Marley’s, “No Woman, No Cry,” hit the audience. The emphasis here was entirely that killer groove. Keith dropped to one knee at the front of the stage and used the microphone and open hands to play a funky, solo groove. Back on his feet, the medley of songs ended with just a hint of The Police’s, “So Lonely.” The regular set ended with another hit single off Ripcord, “Wasted Time.” Confetti rained down on the audience to signal the end of the show, but not quite. Keith returned to the stage, with much appreciation from the audience, and stood alone on a riser in a smoky spotlight. He performed an acoustic version of his 2006 hit, “Stupid Boy.” It was as powerful and heartfelt as anything else he performed that night. Such a poignant moment isn’t something you usually get in an encore, but I’ve come to expect such things from Keith Urban. He pulls the audience in with the element of surprise, working off the cuff to create one-of-a-kind live memories. Just when you’re expecting an exuberant finish, he throws something like this, reminding us that music is all about touching people – body, mind, and soul. He finished on a tender upbeat with a Fuse hit, “Raise ‘Em Up.”

     As the last notes were played and the stage fell silent, Keith took to the microphone to thank the fans. It wasn’t the usual cursory, “thanks for coming,” that’s shouted at the audience while the artist is already walking off the stage. He took the time to say, “Whatever it took for you to make the decision to come here tonight and see this show, thank you.” There was more to that speech, but that was the crux of it. The band members then joined him at the front of the stage for a collective final bow. I love when an artist does that. It says to me they realize this is not a solo effort by standing alongside their band members. On the final weekend of the ripCORD tour, the lyrics to “Raise ‘Em Up” seem especially significant. There’s so much about everyday life and love in that song. How we relate to our own families, each other, and the band that plays a song you like and you sing along. It comes back to family and the myriad of ways that word can be interpreted. Whether it’s his own family, his road family, which includes the artists he’s touring with, or his fans, Keith Urban seems mindful of everyone. He is the “star” as marquee rules define such, but he’s no diva, working just as hard as the incredibly talented people he surrounds himself with. As award shows go, I have no idea what they’re looking for when they vote on the “Entertainer of the Year,” but this tour and Keith Urban get my vote. To Maren Morris, Brett Eldredge, and Keith Urban – raise ’em up trophy high!

 

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Download Ripcord through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/ripcord/id1098796818

Visit Keith Urban’s website: http://keithurban.net/

Read the review of Brett’s new holiday album, GLOW: http://nashvillethreesixty.com/2016/11/06/brett-eldredge-puts-the-glow-in-you-and-the-mistletoe-and-me/

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Download GLOW through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/ripcord/id1098796818

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Download Illinois through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/illinois/id1002251819

Visit Brett Eldredge’s website: http://www.bretteldredge.com/

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Download Hero through iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/hero/id1103499163

Visit Maren Morris’ website: https://marenmorris.com/

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Bev Miskus

Blogger of all things music related in Nashville and beyond.

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