Keith Urban and Sugarland at MSG

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Thursday was a very big night for our musical tastes in NYC. Our favorite band, Girlyman, was in town playing in our favorite club, Joe’s Pub. The Paper Raincoat (playing under the top-secret moniker Cardboard Bikini) was playing at Rockwood Music Hall. The group that has been opening for most of Girlyman’s shows on this tour, Po’ Girl was playing at The Living Room and Will Knox was playing at Rockwood Music Hall.

Months before any of those shows were announced, we bought two tickets to see Keith Urban and Sugarland at Madison Square Garden (MSG). Having seen them each once before at MSG (not on the same bill), we knew that even though we were missing other great shows, we wouldn’t be disappointed that we decided to stick with our original plan!

Keith came on stage at 9pm (I’ll cover Sugarland after Keith). He had five band members on stage with him. Keith is an extraordinary guitar player, all styles, has a superb voice (great range as well) and for the most part, has a really good catalog of songs. While we own two of his CDs, and I like them both, I’m not drawn to them in the way I am to many others.

All that changes when you see him live. He is a consummate performer and entertainer, and for that alone, it would worth seeing him live (along with the top-notch production crew and execution). Even that isn’t the real reason to go (IMHO). As I mentioned in my last post after seeing him at MSG, Keith has an aura, a presence, a soul, that is completely captivating. That he delivers 100% on the performance and the music, is gravy (good gravy, indeed).

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He is generous in so many ways (a quality we admire greatly, and I call it out whenever I spot it). Not only does he thank everyone involved in bringing this big a show to so many cities, he thanked the crowd, for finding a way in these tough times, to come out to the show. More on that a little later on.

Keith delivers consistently from soft ballads, accompanying himself on a solo acoustic guitar, to hard-driving rock songs, with the full band cranking out ear-splitting sounds. He plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and on one special number, sung to his wife (Nicole Kidman, who was in the audience last night), he played electric keyboards (very well!).

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We sat pretty far back and reasonably high up (these shows are nearly sold out before tickets go on sale, let’s not even get started on that nonsense, or the outrageous fees associated with purchasing via TicketMaster). That makes the people on the stage look like hand puppets. Here’s a view from our seats:

ViewFromOurSeats

Similar to last year, but still quite different this time, Keith overcomes that by projecting the action on very large screens at the back of the stage, and large (but much smaller ones) to the left and right of the stage. The effect is generally excellent, and you really do feel that you’re part of the show, and not just a distant observer.

Here are a group of shots to give you a sense. In most, you can see the people on the stage, in front of the giant screens. You can click on any picture in this post to see a larger version:

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To somewhat compensate for the fact that very few people can experience him up close and personal, Keith spends a decent amount of time moving around in the crowd. The simplest thing is that he has a ramp at either end of the stage where he plays to the crowds on either side, as if they were center stage!

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The more complex maneuvers involve a few bodyguards leading (and trailing) the way as he runs through the crowd, continuing to sing and play the guitar while moving, until he settles somewhere. Twice, he ended up on a tiny alternate stage toward that back of the floor area. At most it was a 6’ x 6’ platform (it could have been as small as 4’ x 4’).

The first time he made his way back there, he played a solo number on electric guitar, leading it off by asking the crowd “Who has the good seats now?” 🙂

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He followed that by sitting down for a soulful acoustic number, accompanied subtly but gorgeously by the drums (perhaps a whisper of some other instruments) which were still back on the original (darkened) stage. Then the lights came up on the stage, and the full band played another number, with all of them seated on the stage, as Keith remained seated on the mini-stage in the back.

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There was no buffer zone from the mini-stage to the crowd back there, so Keith was high-fiving and shaking hands with a lot of people between songs. He then promptly made his way back to the main stage, while singing and playing the guitar the entire way through the crowd.

KeithUrbanAmongTheCrowd

He descended into the crowd at least three more times. He went into the stands, and sang part of a song surrounded by the folks, no stage involved. He then made his way back to the mini-stage for part of a song, and from there, worked his way back to the main stage through the other side of the floor.

None of it feels like a trick, even though it obviously is, as you feel his desire to connect with, and give value to the audience, even those that are stuck far away from the main stage. He pulls it off perfectly, every time. When they show the beaming faces on the big screens, even if you’re not one of them, you feel the same elation on their behalf.

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He warned the audience early on that this wasn’t going to be a short show, and he told the truth. Including a very nice encore, Keith was on stage for nearly two hours and 15 minutes! Don’t forget, there was also an opening act!

About 3/4’s of the way in, Keith invited Sugarland to join him. They did a stunning number that was 50% a capella and 50% with Keith and Kristian playing their guitars. Fantastic!

I mentioned his generosity, and I’d like to go into a bit more detail on that. I’ll start with his band. Nearly all artists introduce each member of their band by name at least once in the show. Not all do, and there will be an example of that later on. Keith goes way beyond just introducing them, and aside from the wonderful spirit in which he does it, for me personally, it made a big difference in another way.

Here are some good shots of the band on the big screens:

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There are five people in Keith’s band. Three of them play any number of stringed instruments, one of them plays the electric bass and there is a drummer. While it’s inconceivable that the band members aren’t among the best musicians around (after all, Keith can obviously have his pick), the general sound is so loud, and Keith is such a highlight in most songs, that it’s really hard to notice any of the band members too critically.

In particular, except for when the banjo is the lead-in to a song, it’s hard to even hear that the banjo is being played (later on in the same song). So, rather than just introduce each member, Keith explains what their expertise is, and then gives each of them (individually) the main mic, center stage, and let’s them have the sole spotlight for 2-3 minutes each.

Wow! Each of the four guys (not including the drummer, who I’ll get to in a minute), have incredible voices. While you can hear harmonies with Keith, you can’t tell who’s singing, and the instruments drown it out a bit. Those four guys are (each of the photos was of them, during their spotlight solo!):

Brad Rice on vocals, guitars, banjo and mandolin.

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Chris Rodriguez on vocals, guitars, banjo and mandolin.

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Brian Nutter on vocals, guitars, banjo and mandolin.

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Jerry Flowers on vocals and bass.

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Last, but certainly not least, we come to the extraordinary drummer, Chris McHugh. I am drum fanatic, and I write a lot about the many great drummers we see. For this kind of music (Country, Rock, Ballads), he’s the best (in my opinion). If you didn’t click through to my last post about seeing Keith at MSG, I’ll repeat what I said about Chris here:

While the entire band was superb, I feel the need to specifically call out the drummer, Chris McHugh. I had never heard the name before, but obviously, I’ve heard him before. If you look at the page I linked to, I own at least four of the albums he’s played on, and I saw the movie Cars as well. I don’t know how he finds the time to eat given how much studio work he puts in, but he’s so amazing, that I understand why all of these superstars want him!

He was that good, again, last night.

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As if that wasn’t enough, Keith called up the entire road crew on the stage, and thanked them for the great job that they do. Come on, who else does that? When the encore was over, the big screen ran the Credits like in a movie, and in addition to the band, every member of the road crew was listed, along with their job. The scrolling went on and on. It’s the right thing to do, and we applaud Keith for doing it!

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As the encore was ending, Keith ran off stage (while the song was still going on). A camera followed him running through the tunnels in the back of MSG. Then he ran on to the street (all while the song was still being played by the band on stage). Then he hailed a cab, got in, waved, and drove off. It was a fun touch to end the evening. 🙂

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On to Sugarland. We both love Sugarland, now a duo made up of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. They are supported by five additional band members.

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For all that, Sugarland is effectively Jennifer Nettles  (don’t get me wrong, Kristian and the band are very talented, but it really doesn’t matter). Jennifer has one of the most consistently amazing voices in Country music. It’s strong, clear, has incredible range, deliver emotions appropriately and everything else you could want from a voice. She plays guitar (well) on a few numbers, but that doesn’t matter either.

She also has an infectious spirit on stage, and a great smile, that was captured in all its glory on the big screens.

The other thing that makes Sugarland great is that whomever picks their songs (they write some, but I believe that they cut more than they create) is a genius (it may be them, I don’t know). Whereas Keith brings average songs to life in person, Sugarland starts with 90% of their recorded songs being phenomenal to begin with. That they then deliver a fantastic live performance makes it all the more delicious.

While Keith’s sound got a bit too loud in the higher energy numbers, Sugarland’s never did, and Jennifer’s voice was perfect (in every sense, including volume) last night. In fact, we normally hate the acoustics (and sound levels) at MSG, but for Sugarland’s performance, I was quite impressed.

Here’s a picture of the audience from their perspective from the stage, as shown on the big screen:

ViewFromStage

They did two numbers (at least) where it was just the two of them, both singing (mostly Jennifer) and Kristian playing acoustic guitar. Not the type of sound you would expect to fill MSG. Her voice (all by itself), did! It enveloped every person in the crowd, and drizzled honey on all of us. 🙂

Here’s a shot of them with a cool effect where they appear in silhouette on the big screen (you can see them standing right in front of the big screens at the bottom of the photo if you click on it):

SugarlandSilhouette

All of that is the good stuff. For the bad, the mirror image of Keith’s generosity. Sugarland didn’t introduce a single member of their band, even though they were on stage for 70 minutes! They had excellent chemistry with the band, in particular with the female bassist. They even closed the show with the two of them surrounding the drummer on his final flourish.

We don’t understand that, and it doesn’t happen all that often.

I’m going to try to do what Sugarland doesn’t, and give them some credit, which they richly deserve. Unfortunately, I might be naming the wrong people, since I really can’t be sure who was on stage (in particular since we were so far away!):

Annie Clements played the electric bass and sang quite a bit. The bass playing was good, but the voice was exceptional. She also has an excellent stage presence, and hammed it up quite a bit with Jennifer (hence my assertion that the chemistry seemed great on stage).

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Brandon Bush (Kristian’s brother!) plays keyboards (don’t know if he sang, I simply couldn’t see). He was excellent throughout the set.

Scott Patton played lead guitar. At least I’m pretty sure it was him. He was really good throughout as well.

ScottPattonScottPattonGuitar

Thad Beaty played guitar and sang. Another good performance all around.

Travis McNabb played the drums. He was particularly good.

Anyway, I feel better now. 🙂

When the show was over, we were both sorely tempted to do something that we’re too old to do, and not temperamentally suited to do, and that was to head over to Rockwood Music Hall, and catch the Paper Raincoat show, which began at midnight! We came close to pushing our limit, but some sanity returned and ruled the day.

The main reason we didn’t push it is that we have a wedding weekend that we’re attending in Princeton, NJ (I’m typing this in the hotel at the moment), and we didn’t want to fall asleep during the rehearsal dinner. 🙂