Five songs into his PNC Music Pavilion concert, Keith Urban appeared to surprise a giddy, near-speechless teen-aged North Carolina fan by inviting her onstage, commandeering her phone, and placing a FaceTime video call to her aunt in Illinois.
But something about it seemed a bit off.
Aunt Becky answered a little too quickly, and acted a little too cool, calm and collected about the fact that one of country music’s biggest stars – who also happened to be a judge on “American Idol,” and who also happens to be married to Nicole Kidman – was interrupting her weeknight re-run of “NYPD Blue.”
If the whole interaction was staged, that’s certainly not a crime. It’s just ... well, it’s just that lots of things seemed a bit off on Thursday night.
This was my fifth time seeing the now-48-year-old Australian live, but my first time seeing him pass up the opportunity to perform “You’ll Think of Me.” And “Better Life.” And “Sweet Thing.” And “Kiss a Girl.” Instead, he opted for eight songs off of his latest album, “Ripcord,” which is his least-country CD (and his least-commercially successful, by far).
Other curious observations from the show, both big and small:
▪ When opener Maren Morris joined Urban onstage halfway through his set so she could sing Miranda Lambert’s part on “We Were Us,” most of her vocals were almost completely drowned out, as if the sound engineer had forgotten to unmute her mic.
▪ As Urban wailed away at his guitar on a smaller stage in front of the lawn during the 1-2-3 punch of “You Gonna Fly,” “You Look Good in My Shirt” and “Somebody Like You,” a series of brawls broke out in rapid succession in the pit area. It’s the largest (and I’m pretty sure the only) fight I’ve seen at PNC this summer, and it took Live Nation security and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police several minutes to break it up. One guy I saw looked awfully bloodied. Best I could tell, Urban was too busy signing an electric guitar and giving it to a fan next to the lawn stage to notice. Which is good. I don’t think he would have been impressed. Although I’m sure it all started over something really, really important. (Doesn’t it always?)
▪ After returning to the main stage, Urban shouted, “We’re just getting started!” This was 15 songs in, and after saying that, he played only five more. To me, that’s – in a manner of speaking – kind of like yelling “You’re almost there!” at a runner who is 10 miles into a marathon. (That’s a 26.2-mile race, for those keeping score at home.)
▪ I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something odd about the gray tank top Urban stripped down to in the late going (right before launching into new track “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”). If you were there, help me out with this: Maybe more low-cut than I’m used to seeing on a guy?
▪ Though his dexterous guitar solos were as enthralling as ever, it felt like there were a couple fewer than usual, and like he wrapped them up more quickly than in the past. One potential theory is that Urban was pressed for time. Previous shows on this tour reportedly have clocked in at two hours, but curfew at PNC is 11 p.m., and he didn’t take the stage until 9:15. If you look at other setlists on the tour, they’ve often included one or two additional songs – most notably the show-stopping “Stupid Boy” and its lengthy, killer guitar solo. In virtually every other city, the Grammy-winning ballad has led the encore. But not in Charlotte.
If it sounds like I’m hating, I’m not. I mean, I’ve come to respect Urban’s live performances so much that I’ve repeatedly implored friends and co-workers to catch him in concert.
The one I took Thursday night? She loved it. And I’m guessing most in attendance on Thursday night would concur.
Because even on an “off” night, watching Urban shred the guitar – or I should say guitars, as he seemed to pick up a different type of ax (electric, acoustic, ganjo) every time a song ended – is well worth the price of admission. When he’s absolutely crushing a solo, it’s an aural but also a visual delight; it’s almost like he’s dancing with his instrument.
Bottom line: If the absolute worst things I can say about your show are that the setlist felt abbreviated, that a handful of idiots started a fight when you weren’t looking, and that maaaaybe a between-song gag seemed staged, I’d say you’re still doing just fine.
Update at 12:04 p.m. Friday: I heard from others after the concert who agreed that Urban’s antics felt staged, and that Aunt Becky seemed way too calm. But Debbie Hughes, the mother of the teenager who got all the attention, sent me a very polite email to inform me that her family was not at all in on it.
“My sister is always that cool,” Hughes wrote. “I can promise you that although I noticed the show was different than normal my daughter was totally shocked that he picked her! And I love it! She has been singing his music since she could talk. And when I got her these tickets she said she’d get up there, and she did. I was very proud of her.”
Still, she added a couple of more off-kilter things about the show to my list:
“The first thing I noticed is he avoided reaching out and touching fans during his performance. Second, he normally stays much later and signs autographs...”
1. Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)
2. Long Hot Summer
3. Break on Me
4. Where the Blacktop Ends
5. Somewhere in My Car
6. Blue Ain’t Your Color
7. Gettin’ in the Way
8. Days Go By
9. We Were Us (with Maren Morris)
10. Cop Car
11. Sun Don’t Let Me Down
12. The Fighter
13. You Gonna Fly
14. You Look Good in My Shirt
15. Somebody Like You (with Brett Eldredge)
16. Little Bit of Everything
17. John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16
18. Jack and Diane / No Woman, No Cry (mashup/covers)
19. Wasted Time
20. Raise ‘Em Up