I said it six years ago when Keith Urban debuted at RodeoHouston and my conviction has only grown with time: These days the only thing that separates a country artist like Urban from a softening-with-age rocker like Bon Jovi is a mandolin and an Australian accent.
Tuesday night, Urban returned to Reliant Stadium for the third year in a row (his fourth RodeoHouston overall) and offered the heavily female crowd a sneak preview of what the rest of the Australia and North America can expect when his Get Closer 2011 World Tour officially begins next month.
What was offered in his 10-song, 65-minute set was an artist who is confident in his music and not worried about selling the next single. A playful showman whose comfort in his personal life with his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, and their two daughters, carries over to the stage.
What it was not however was a country show. At least not by any definition that Hank Williams, Johnny Cash or George Jones would recognize.
Like Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Kenny Chesney and other neo-country contemporaries that took over country radio in the mid-90s and early 2000s, Urban is a "crossover country" artist, which means that his songs would fit on adult contemporary radio just as easy as it would with the buckle-'n-boot crowd.
As time goes on Urban wears the paradox like a badge of pride and a tool to reach new fans. Drawing equally from his decade full of country chart-toppers, he seemed to relish the idea of moving back-'n-forth between rock and country as if to say, "No one will label me or my music."
"Stupid Boy" was a twin electric guitar assault with a solo worthy of Van Halen, while the semi-acoustic run through his latest single "Without You" and "Making Memories of Us" were slow country two-steps built for couples to get close.
Crowd favorite "Sweet Thing" got a crossover makeover with Urban weaving snippets of Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" and "Deep In The Heart of Texas." The crowd shrieked with approval for both of the familiar sing-alongs.
The No. 1 hit parade — "Kiss A Girl," "Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me," "You Look Good In My Shirt" — was hard to argue with, but the short rodeo set omitted a few favorites (No "Days Go By"). A few more songs from the new "Get Closer" album would have also been welcome.
But having more requests than he can manage is a sign of the growth and success Urban has had since he first started playing RodeoHouston. Besides a rich history of artists, RodeoHouston's greatest legacy is allowing Houston to check in annually with the best and brightest country stars (or semi-country stars in Urban's case) and allowing us to watch them evolve.