116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Keith Urban has seen a phenomenon during his shows this summer that doesn’t always happen for artists like him, who have enjoyed careers spanning two decades or more.
Roughly a third of his audiences these days are made up of fans who have never seen him in concert. And judging by their reaction to certain back catalog songs, they aren’t familiar with his early albums or even some of the 20 chart-topping hits that propelled Urban to the front ranks of the country music scene and have kept him there ever since.
He’ll be heating up the grandstand at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday night, Aug. 20, 2022.
“It’s been interesting on this tour, knowing what mix of newer songs and slightly older songs, the sort of mix of things to put into the set list,” Urban said in an early August phone interview. “Really, there’s nothing like just getting out and touring to find out more of this and less of that.
“What we’ve discovered is the audience is so incredibly diverse. I’m seeing huge amounts of people that are seeing us for the first time, which is really extraordinary and it’s not something I expected, to be having sometimes a third of the audience being brand-new, having never seen us before.”
The new fans, Urban said, have connected with tunes like “Wild Hearts” (a Top 5 single he released earlier this year) and “One Too Many” (a Top 10 single from his 2020 album “The Speed Of Now Part 1” that features guest vocals from pop star Pink) — songs that have brought a decidedly modern sheen to his sound.
“I can tell these are the songs that are bringing in these new audiences, who have never seen us play before,” Urban said. “I can see it because we will do some of our older songs, and they don’t know them.”
This new wave of fans is very gratifying for Urban because it shows that 23 years after he released his 1999 self-titled debut, his newer music still is relevant and connecting with country music fans.
“It really is the dream,” he said. “I feel very, very grateful for it, and also challenged by it, because you don’t know what kind of set list to put together. You think you have a dozen classic songs, but not to those people. They don’t know those songs. So it’s fascinating watching all of the different people in the audience singing along with different songs.”
Seasons of change
This evolution in his fan base has followed a key transition period in Urban’s career. After his 2010 album, “Get Closer,” he underwent vocal surgery, and coming out of that ordeal, Urban embarked on what he considers the second chapter in his career.
Beginning with his 2013 album, “Fuse,” Urban has introduced a whole new range of musical influences, instrumentation and synthetic sonic elements into his songs that have broadened his sound considerably, without abandoning the pop-infused country sound that became his signature over the eight albums that culminated with “Get Closer.”
“A lot of things were happening at that time,” Urban said, looking back at the period that preceded the “Fuse” album. “I think one of the big things for me was I had vocal surgery. I had really damaged vocal cords that were giving me constant issues. It was a bit of a challenge through the making of ‘Get Closer,’ a bit of a challenge for the tour that followed.
“That’s a big part, I think, of what allowed me to do this reset on a new chapter,” he said. “I could sing things I couldn’t sing before that. ... I was really struggling to get through shows and so forth. I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on my self esteem, and sort of almost a low-grade depression because everything is dependent on your voice when you’re on stage.
“I used to say ‘Gosh, knock on wood I never have any issues with my fingers, my hands, my guitar playing.’ But my voice was sometimes not there. After vocal surgery, it was like having just a brand-new, resilient voice that was there all of the time. It did incredible things to my self esteem, my confidence, just general mood. My general mood just elevated and lifted and I became much more willing to follow my musical curiosities, and not stay in a limited place of safety,” he said.
“So it wasn’t coincidental, it was right about then that I started going out and working with other producers, songwriters, other recording engineers, other everything because I was in a confident musical exploration mode. That, then, yielded ‘Fuse,’ and ‘Ripcord’ (his 2016 album) and all of the records that came after.”
Urban’s willingness to embrace musical styles and sounds outside of country isn’t new. He’s correct in noting that even on his 1999 self-titled album, he incorporated elements that were uncommon in country music at the time, like the programmed rhythms on “It’s A Love Thing” and the Cajun rhythms and instrumentation on “I Wanna Be Your Man (Forever).”
“I think even back to songs that are on the very first solo record, certainly ‘Golden Road’ (from 2002), ‘Be Here’ (2004), those records, but particularly, ‘Love, Pain & The Whole Crazy Thing,’ which came out in 2006. (With) that record, there are a half dozen songs on there that to me are just very undefinable from a genre standpoint,” Urban said.
But he displayed a distinct shift from a fairly organic, guitar-based sound to a more modern, more wide-ranging sonic aesthetic on “Fuse.” And “The Speed of Now Part 1” continued to stretch Urban’s sound and style.
The most obvious example is “Out The Cage,” a song with an R&B/hip-hop feel that features contributions from Nile Rogers of Chic and somehow also mixes in some banjo from Urban. “Say Something,” meanwhile, incorporates vocal cadences, light synthetic rhythms and the breezy feel of much of today’s top 40 pop.
At the same time, “The Speed of Now Part 1” also includes several ballads (including “Live With,” “Change Your Mind” and “Forever”) that fit comfortably alongside the kind of country-pop tunes that have been a significant presence on all of Urban’s 11 albums — even if these latest songs come with decidedly modern production.
Urban began his tour in support of “The Speed Of Now Part 1” in mid-June, so he’s now had a good deal of time to fine tune his set to please both new and longtime fans.
“I guess the things that I look at when I’m putting a set list together are tempo, keys, familiarity, subject matter, those sorts of things,” Urban said. “So it’s really more of a playlist we put together to create a certain mood in the room and a certain atmosphere and environment — just a certain experience. So that ends up being hopefully a good mix of everything, songs off of all different kinds of records.”
He’s been playing lengthy shows on this tour, routinely clocking in at more than two hours, and bringing some visual sizzle to the stage, as well.
“We have a couple of big video walls that are interactive, sometimes with the band and I projected up there, but also a mix of content and various things, depending on the song,” Urban said. “But the show itself is quite dynamic and full of a lot of diversity because my music is. We have a lot of textures sonic and visually to cover on this tour, so the production was built with that in mind.”