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Live: Keith Urban at Staples Center

July 20, 2009 |  3:28 pm

Keith_Urban_2_ The good news about Keith Urban's two-hour performance Sunday at Staples Center was that the New Zealand-born, Australia-reared Nashville resident is letting loose the kind of raw human emotion that's been all but buffed out of previous tours.

Urban delivered an anguished rendition of "You'll Think of Me," in which he riffed on the song's lyric, his voice breaking convincingly as he cried, "Why'd you have to break my heart -- didn't you know how much I loved you?"

He allowed more confusion and loss to wash over him in " 'Til Summer Comes Around," a haunting track from his latest album, “Defying Gravity,” that gave him a forum to send out Mark Knopfler-esque sighs from his Stratocaster.

Granted, Urban didn't directly address his well-publicized substance-abuse relapse and recovery on that album, and the closest fans got to a peek inside his private world during Sunday's show was when he performed "Only You Can Love Me This Way."

He dedicated the song to his wife, Nicole Kidman, "who happens to be here tonight, [and] I'm very happy about that."

But the enthusiastic reception he received from the capacity crowd might be enough to convince him to continue to delve into more emotionally frank territory in the future; he could start by adding the new album's closing track, "Thank You," which cuts close to the heart, to the set list soon.

As one of country music's most skilled guitarists, Urban led his five-piece band from one workout to the next, taking the opportunity to progress through a series of appropriately varied Gibsons and Fenders, electric and acoustic.

Although the more pensive moments added depth to what's traditionally been an overwhelmingly upbeat concert experience, Urban still worked his "man of the people" gambit effectively, moving from the main stage through the crowd to a smaller second stage toward the back of the floor.

He taunted some and elicited cheers from others with his good-humored remark, "Look who's got the good seats now!" Female fans hugged and kissed him, even fondled his hair, on this trips through the arena.

The band regularly rotated in banjo and mandolin, instruments with rural roots that are key to the signature Urban sound, which routinely marries new and old, techno and traditional. It's the cornerstone of his unusually strong, two-pronged appeal as a slightly bad boy-next-door sex symbol for women and a bona fide guitar hero for the men.

Grammy Award winner Sugarland was slated to open, but concert-goers were greeted at the arena's entrance with a note stating that singer Jennifer Nettles had been ordered by her doctor to rest her voice. Enter Lady Antebellum, the Country Music Assn.'s best new artist winner, fronted by singers Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and vocalist-guitarist Dave Haywood.

Kelly has a Tim McGraw-ish Southern soul quality to his voice, and Scott is even more impressive as she channels some of Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines' feisty expressivity. That combination, especially in tandem with three-part harmonies rounded out by Haywood, has produced several catchy singles -- including the current No. 1 country hit, "I Run to You," and the group's out-of-the-gate success with "Love Don't Live Here."

The group took a couple of unnecessary (and unrevealing) detours into bar-band territory with covers of Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" and John Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good." Its own material is strong enough to stand up without the gratuitous nod to classic-rock past. 

--Randy Lewis

Photo credit: Axel Koester / For The Times