“You’re all going to Hollywood,” Keith Urban announced Tuesday night at a special show in The Parish at the House of Blues.
Radio station WNOE has courted Urban and his management since 2011 in an attempt to convince them that New Orleans is a legitimate country music market. The country station partnered with Urban’s management to present the show, and the only way to get tickets to see the country music star in a rare small venue was through Urban’s fan club and WNOE.
Urban was in town to shoot footage for the upcoming season of “American Idol,” and it was clear why he got the judge’s job on the long-running singing competition. Television relies on likability, and that’s what Urban sells.
He sang the ballad “Cop Car” — about falling in love with a girl while being arrested — with pretty much the same light emotional touch he brought to the breezy “Long Hot Summer” that started the show. Because of that, the few ballads in the set didn’t sound heartfelt. He was on firmer ground when a song’s tone matched his own amiable nature.
The show’s best moments came when he could enjoy the intimacy that The Parish provided. When a woman said she was from Brisbane, Australia — Urban’s hometown — he brought her up on stage to talk to her. “You’re from Brissy?” he asked and wisecracked with her about her travels and her friends in the crowd. “Name one of them,” he joked.
Later, he asked for a volunteer to sing Miranda Lambert’s part in their duet “We Were Us” and brought up a Tulane student who was more than up to the task.
“This is going to be very loose tonight,” Urban said to open the show, but “loose” is relative. He stripped his musical lineup down to two guitars, bass and drums, but the tempos remained buttoned-down and the energy controlled.
Without the additional levels of Nashville sheen, Urban’s songs sounded like ’70s and ’80s pop rock, with only the occasional banjo and a little hiccup in his voice to identify the sound as country. “Loose” meant he forgot to change guitars before one song, and that a guitar player who doesn’t usually play banjo played one just fine Tuesday night.
The songs in the show were almost all in his current set list with his regular band, so little was truly winged. Still, Urban did surprise the crowd when he called out Devon Allman, son of Gregg Allman and a professional musician in his own right, to join him on a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out.” Allman sang and traded guitar breaks with Urban, giving the crowd the sort of special moment that the set needed a few more of.
The energy was lower than you’d expect for such an intimate show in a small room with a genuine star, but the crowd could get excited. During the night-ending version of “Somebody Like You,” Urban pulled out all the stops, playing guitar behind his head, organizing a call-and-response segment with the audience and getting everybody to jump with commitment on cue.
That energy was waiting to be tapped, and the moments he energized the audience suggested that the challenge he faced was how to adapt what he does in arenas to a barroom.
More shows like this one and he’d get it. For those in the room, the show was fun, but the thrill came more from seeing Keith Urban in a small room than from what he actually did there.