Sobriety becomes him.
A cleaned-up Keith Urban was back onstage Thursday night, making his past live shows pale in comparison.
Chicago fans were the first to get a good look at Urban's fresh-from-Betty Ford attitude at the Chicago Theatre. For two ambitious hours, Urban tore through 14 hits from his old albums and his newest release "Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing." Even though he has been off the road since October, his voice showed a new strength. The lyrics were the same, but the blurry edges of his baritone rasp and sweet falsettos were gone.
Urban opened with the Grammy-nominated "Once in a Lifetime Love," and another new one titled "I Told You So." Urban wrote almost all the songs off the album, in the dining-room-turned-studio of his Nashville home. And the sold-out crowd seemed to feel right at home with those new songs, turning each one into a sing-a-long.
On his newest single "Stupid Boy," Urban and four other guys in his band (everyone but the drummer) played guitar, a din that overshadowed Urban's pleading vocals, but not the song's sentiment.
He let go of his guitar for one song, "Got It Right This Time," when he played the piano. And on "Making Memories of Us," he asked the audience to join in. When they couldn't, Urban admitted, "I was trying to get you guys to sing the bits I forgot."
But when Urban wasn't singing, he was talking. And talking. And talking. He called his treatment program one of vigorous honesty, which would explain his need to tell everyone there the details of his 90-day stay at the Betty Ford Center. No TVs, no phones and a 9 p.m. bedtime. He compared it to a prison, even though he made it clear he was grateful for his new beginning.
Ending the show with just an acoustic guitar and his soulful voice on "But for the Grace of God," Urban left fans with a feeling for what's down the road: purity in his voice, and clarity in the music.
Next up for Urban is a debut performance on this weekend's "Saturday Night Live.".
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