Who: Keith Urban / Julia Michaels
Where: Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney
When: Friday January 25th, 2019
Review: David James Young (Facebook / Twitter / Website / Patreon)
Photos: Britt Andrews (Facebook / Twitter / Patreon)
It's Country Music Festival here in Australia, where artists from all over the country have been congregating in Tamworth to showcase the past, present and future of the genre. Although we're a long way from Tamworth tonight, there are still plenty of Levi's, boots, bolo ties, flannel and Akubras wondering around, all while a DJ spins country classics from a compilation literally titled Ute Beauts Volume 2. It's fitting, then, that our headliner for the evening has paid homage to this by picking as an opener... Julia Michaels.
Alright, look, it's not a completely unjustified pairing – Michaels has co-writing credits and features on Graffiti U and, truth be told, she's not that bad a performer at all. She's bubbly, charming and confident enough to sway at least a portion of the gathering crowd to her side of the pop spectrum. There are still plenty of bemused faces in the crowd – the greyer the hair, the meaner the glare – but Michaels works hard to unfold those arms, and you have to give credit for that.
Michaels is best known as a songwriter to the stars alongside Justin Tranter. They've worked on songs by Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and Hailee Steinfeld, which Michaels acknowledges by performing an acoustic medley. In theory, it should serve as a display of her exceptional talents as a pop songwriter and go-to hitmaker. In practice, however, this highlights the fact Michaels herself is still not able to bring that same hookiness and charisma to her own songs, which more often than not pass by without any real impact or consequence. It's early days, of course, as she emerges from the shadows of giants – and, if she can capture lightning in a bottle the same way she has with closer “Issues”, there'll be plenty more where that came from.
During the aforementioned festivities earlier in the week, Keith Urban – or “Our Keith”, as he's known – made a surprise performance. He cut his teeth as a performer at the festival before making it big in Nashville, and one gets the suspicion that he's never truly forgotten that. It certainly assists with his ongoing Springsteen-esque everyman persona – even though he, like Springsteen, is a platinum-selling multi-millionaire. It's all in the little things – like when his Australian accent comes through between the hard Rs and melodic drawl, or when he pulls up a woman out of the crowd and calls the Tinder date that stood her up using her phone. The man is an absolute crowd-pleaser, and it's this that assists in getting a solid portion of the material over the line.
Spoiler alert: The album Urban is currently touring, Graffiti U, is terrible. One of the worst he's ever made. It's a desperate ploy for pop relevancy from a man in his 40s who should absolutely know better. It's full of artificial piano, snap beats and trap hi-hats that has plagued so many artists within contemporary country. It doesn't particularly matter when you're seeing it live, though. Whether it's genuine belief or not, Urban and his stellar band deliver with conviction and precision. “Never Comin Down” is an entertaining opener, “Coming Home” makes more sense in the live environment and “Drop Top” could have been a lost Police single save for its atrocious, out-of-place EDM chorus.
Besides everything else, Urban knows how to reward listeners for going with him on the new stuff – and that's to get right into the old stuff. “Days Go By” and “Somebody Like You” remain staples of the Keith Urban live show, not to mention the best singles he's ever put out. Later, he pulls out “Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me” and “You Look Good in My Shirt”, performing from a B-stage in the second half of the arena to a sea of adulation and joy. One can't imagine that Urban himself ever pictured being a full-scale arena artist when he was starting out in Tamworth decades prior, but in the present tense it's hard to imagine him anywhere else.
In reality, Urban only really hits one major snag with his show: It's way too long. The band arrived on-stage ten minutes earlier than their advertised time and still managed to stretch the show past the two-hour mark. Of course, Springsteen (yeah, him again) regularly goes past this point during shows and makes a point of going as long as he and the band are able. The difference is that Springsteen doesn't have nearly as many treacly ballads as Our Keith, which drag and slow the performance down to a crawl. There are plenty of peaks and valleys, as is customary, but unfortunately there's a bit too much time spent in the latter to really achieve any degree of consistency.
All that said: When Keith Urban is good, he's really good. The guy knows it, too – hell, he's known it for 20 years plus at this point. He can play the guitar like a motherf***in' riot. He's funny, he's engaging and when he puts his mind to it, he can make the country-pop Venn diagram coexist peacefully. All internal and external flaws aside, it's very easy to understand and appreciate the appeal of Our Keith.
Catch our full gallery of photos from Keith Urban in Sydney after the jump!