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An Urban oasis of country-pop

Kiwi star hits right amount of sugar

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Winnipeg Free Press

Keith Urban interacts with the audience at the MTS Centre.

Sure, he's a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll, but above all, Keith Urban is a pop star.

New Zealand-born Urban, 46, has always had plenty of crossover appeal -- it's hard to imagine a cowboy hat even touching that perfectly highlighted head of his -- but he's also just plain appealing. He has a cavalcade of catchy hits, 15 of them No. 1s. He's a judge on American Idol. He's married to Nicole Kidman. He has a sexy accent and nice teeth. He's almost frustratingly likable.

Oh yeah, and as he proved at Monday night's Winnipeg stop on his Light the Fuse tour, he's also a virtuosic musician. While the house lights were still up, Urban quietly took the stage, dressed in a clavicle-exposing black V-neck T-shirt and jeans, to noodle on the banjo, while his bandmates joined him one by one for a loose jam. It's totally a thing he does at every show, but it was a nice amuse bouche before the ensuing pig-out on sugary country pop hits.

And the hits came fast and furious. Backed by five towering screens -- which seemed to linger on close-ups of his face -- Urban wasted no time, launching into Long Hot Summer and Put You In a Song, which boasted scorching guitar solos rivalling the most muscular of arena rock acts. Sweet Thing and I Told You So followed, another explosive one-two punch that had the entire room singing along. Urban knows how to shred, but he also knows how to work a room.

Even in its slower moments, the show retained its arena-rock bombast. Swathed in red light, Urban showed off his mighty lungs on the power ballad Stupid Boy, off his 2006 album Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing. It, too, was fleshed out by long, languid solos that stretched on into oblivion.

There were a lot of women in the crowd packing proclamations of love scribbled on DayGlo-coloured posters. After canvassing the room, Urban pulled one lucky lady onstage -- hers read "Keith I Hear You Like Tall Girls" -- had a recliner brought out for her and serenaded her with an intimate solo acoustic performance Only You Can Love Me This Way. It's pure schtick, sure, but she'll remember that moment forever.

Urban reunited with his backing band for the bouncy Even The Stars Fall 4 You off 2013's Fuse, before being joined by opening act Little Big Town on stage for an encore-worthy performance of You Gonna Fly. Cop Car, a fairly forgettable Fuse ballad, followed. His most country tune, Without You, was backed by a black and white montage of footage of him and his wife frolicking on a beach juxtaposed with shots of a highway (get it?). It was super cheesy, but it was sweet. (See? The man is impossible not to like.)

Hour two contained yet more high-energy guitar heroics; a spot-on cover of The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again absolutely rocked. The band moved to a small satellite stage on the other side of the bowl for a charging rendition of Once in a Lifetime and the anthemic Better Life. As he made his way back to the mainstage, Urban handed out high fives to every outstretched hand he could reach. He's nice like that.

But wait, there was more. Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild stood in for Miranda Lambert on We Were Us, and a giant disco ball showered the crowd with reflected light for Little Bit of Everything. The main set closed with Somebody Like You -- Urban's mega hit -- to a roar of approval and an explosion of confetti cannons.

You have to admire his stamina. After delivering a two-hour show (which was a little long and could have benefitted from some editing), Urban decided he hadn't had enough of a workout and returned to the stage for a four-song encore. That included a trio of heartstring-tugging solo piano performances -- But for the Grace of God, Raining on Sunday and Tonight I Want to Cry -- during which a galaxy of cellphones appeared in the stands.

Urban knew better than to close the show on a downer. A tease of Bruno Mars' Locked Out of Heaven gave way to You Look Good in My Shirt. For that one, he performed somewhere in the 100-level, surrounded by a throng of screaming women.

You have to love an opener that works the crowd with the sureness of a headliner. Alabama's Little Big Town turned in an engaging, high-energy set straight out of the Grand Ole Opry. While the band's signature four-part harmonies were given more room to breathe in big, room-filling country ballads such as Bring It On Home and Sober, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook, and Phillip Sweet proved they also do the toe-tappin', boot-scootin' boogie thing really well, too -- from the driving stomp of set opener Little White Church to the boozy, bluesy Front Porch Thing.

The tender Can't Go Back sent more than a few people to the beer line, but the band commanded focus with the dramatic Tornado -- which probably could have been spared the cheesy theatrics. The wind machine seemed a little... on the nose. The foursome ended its hour-long set on a high with its singalong love letter to the American backcountry, Boondocks.

Brett Eldredge, a rising country star out of Paris, Ill., warmed up the stage with a half-hour set culled mostly from his studio debut, 2013's Bring You Back. While the stripped-down soulful ballad One Mississippi -- which featured Eldredge solo in the spotlight accompanied by just a piano -- was pretty, the full-band numbers felt a bit bogged down by a thundering bass-heavy mix. No matter. The crowd went wild for his high-energy, clap-along single, Don't Ya.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2014 D1

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