As a musician/percussionist, I love experiencing live music. So, my wife Kat and I went to see country artist, Keith Urban, last Thursday at the Bradley Center, in downtown Milwaukee.
We aren't big country fans per se, but we'd come across this opportunity, and we didn't want to pass it up. Partly because I'm a musician and enjoy pretty much any kind of music, and because Kat is always up for new experiences. Mostly, we attended because the tickets we'd obtained were pretty special.
If you've read my last blog post, you already know that I'm the founder of Academy School of Performance, held within the Menomonee Falls Academy of Music store, where I'm the percussion instructor. I mention this because the basis of the School of Performance is to help Academy students learn to perform on a stage, in front of an audience, effectively. Could I learn something from Urban to bring back to my school?
As I mentioned, Kat and I aren't really big fans of country music. In fact, personally, I didn't know a single Keith Urban song prior to attending this concert. I'd heard of him, but for whatever reason, I'd never sought out his music. However, the tickets we'd received were special, almost as though they'd sought us out.
I Googled Keith Urban before the concert to read a little background information on him. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the current drummer playing with him is Chris McHugh. I'd heard his playing in a group called Whiteheart, many years ago. His playing was special, and he captured my attention.
Chris is a "studio guy." In short, this means he is extremely consistent, and every note he plays has a purpose: to "serve" the music he is performing or recording. His playing is "to the point." No unnecessary fillers. What he creates always adds to the song - never detracts from it. This is how I try to approach my drumming performances in the studio or live, and Chris was an early influence.
So, I found myself in an interesting position: Because I was unfamiliar with Urban's music, I could focus more on the overall nuances of the performance and production (staging, lighting, sound reinforcement, musical flow, etc.) of his "Get Closer" tour, objectively. At concerts where I am very familiar with the songwriting, I tend to get drawn into that aspect. This would almost be like having an "out-of-body" experience as a concert goer/drummer.
The opening act of the evening was Jake Owen. He had an excellent voice, and the group's harmonies blended perfectly. The band was tight. They used only the front portion of the entire stage lighting set-up. The rest of the lights were revealed during the band "change over," when large black sheets covering the back portion of the lighting system were removed. Within the audience were hundreds of screaming fans. One, standing right next to the stage, even had flashing "bunny ears."
Urban's lighting set-up was pretty interesting. The trusses holding the lights were fashioned to resemble a Ferris wheel & roller coaster, with the lights actually traveling on the trusses like roller coaster cars. Inside the big round "Ferris wheel" was a screen showing close-ups of the performers and various video clips.
Besides the large center stage, there were two satellite stages on either side, and a small round stage in the center of the audience floor. This stage lifted up during one portion of the concert.
During the beginning of the concert, a lady asked me if I was part of "Monkeyville." I wasn't sure of what she was saying, but she kept asking the same question, three times. Each time I told her "No." Eventually, she said, "Oh well, Keith Urban. Woo hoo!" Then she left. Psycho? I then turned to our friends, Donna and Jim, with whom we went to the concert, and they explained that Monkeyville is Keith Urban's official fan club name. Ohhhhh. I get it. Oops. Again, I was focusing on the overall nuances of this concert. That's definitely a "nuance."
Our seats were on the floor of the Bradley Center, almost center stage, four rows back. Apparently, this was within the section that was reserved for members of Monkeyville. Only official members could purchase these seats. What an amazing view!
These tickets were indeed special, but not only for the reasons I'd just mentioned.
I can't resist. Chris McHugh's drum set-up, from what I could see, included various Craviotto brand drums, DW hardware and Sabian cymbals. He had a computer and a Roland electronic pad to the left of the drums. I believe he used this pad to trigger loops containing a "click track" and percussion "samples" from the computer, which he could hear and play to via his "in-ear" monitors.
During a portion of one song, a fiddler was pictured playing on the large round screen. I'd noticed my wife took a few quick glances, looking around for the fiddle player. There was no live player, yet the band was in time with the fiddler's track, and grooving hard. I knew why she was confused, so I leaned over and explained that the drummer is playing to a click track, which keeps him in sync with the sound and video tracks. This is what helps the band, light and video production work together; drumming to a "click." I wonder how the show would've come off if McHugh's playing wasn't so consistent?
During one song, Eric Church joined the band on stage, as a surprise for the audience. I'm assuming this was a short-notice scenario, because I'd noticed during the song that McHugh was reading a paper "cheat-sheet" that was sitting atop his Roland pad, to his left.
I've been in this same situation many times. Having to perform a song or songs in a show, with minimal rehearsal. On my cheat-sheets, I'll usually have the lyrics written out in full, or the structure of the song (verse, chorus, bridge) stated, with various accents I'll need to hit with the band. I'll list the song's tempo and style, just to feel secure. I'll also include any sections within the song where the drums are resting. I might even write out actual rhythms to play, for perhaps the song's ending. When under the lights, the less thinking, the better!
I should mention these items: Urban broke a guitar string and dropped his microphone during different spots of the concert. Neither occurrences came close to denting this world class performance. He took it all in stride, as a true professional would. Urban also seemed to really enjoy interacting with the crowd, reading their posters out loud, bringing a woman on stage for a requested autograph, and even giving another in the stands one of his guitars.
I left to get some sodas, and on my way back the security guard advised me I needed to wait a moment. I looked up and saw flashlights coming toward me down the aisle. Urban had left the stage and was winding through the crowd, heading for the auxiliary stage in the center of the Bradley Center floor. He was almost right in front of me, slapping everyone's hands. I held mine out, and he grasped it in his. Then he continued on his way. Nice moment, that one.
When I got back to Jim, Donna and Kat, I learned that Jim had high-fived Urban, as well. Kat got a great picture of Jim and Urban together, as he passed.
Throughout the concert and after, he and the other guitarists were throwing picks into the crowd. I watched one of them fall to the floor, and realized no one else seemed to see it. So I went looking and brought it back to our seats. I gave it to Donna. How's that for experiencing the nuances of this concert?
Last November, Ryan Schoenfeldt, a very close friend of Kat and I, purchased four tickets through the Keith Urban fan club, Monkeyville. In March he bought another. His plan was to go with friends, and his parents, Donna and Jim. They are all big fans of country music, and Ryan especially was a fan of Keith Urban.
Ryan's an artist in his own right - of photography, not music. Important to note, because an artistic world view helps a person to appreciate other art forms better. I remember having several conversations about how music and photography have many similar attributes. One topic was how musicians typically don't have time during a show to appreciate most of what is happening on the stage. We're working hard. It's after the fact that the satisfaction kicks in. Ryan had said that the same thing happens in photography while taking a pictures. A picture isn't truly appreciated 'til the day is done and one has gone back through the shots. Then you can sit back and behold a picture for what it is.
Ryan ended up not being able to attend the concert. On March 29 -- just weeks after he'd purchased that last ticket -- our 34-year-old friend passed away silently, of natural causes, in his sleep. We were all stunned.
These tickets were special because of what they represented: another chance to go deeper into Ryan's life and experience first hand what he would have. A chance to further the artistic conversations between Ryan, Kat and I. A chance to get to know Ryan's parents even deeper, and for all of us to help each other through our loss. Ryan's parents had invited Kat and I specifically because they wanted the tickets to go to friends who would appreciate the tickets for what they truly were.
Such a surreal evening, for all it represented. But, such a beautiful celebration of Ryan's life. You see, our receiving these tickets simply represented Ryan in who he really, truly was; he was giving gifts to others even in his passing.
Donna and Jim, thank you for sharing those very special tickets with Kat and I. It was beautiful joining you both in healing.
Thank you, Ryan, for enriching all who came into your life. The concert was great. We love you and miss you.