Keith Urban remembers the first time he played the Valley.
It was in 1999, after the release of his debut solo album, and he played a small club outside of Phoenix.
“It was one of the first clubs we played,” Urban says. “There were 800 to 1,000 people there and it was packed, packed, packed all the way to the front of the stage. It was a really euphoric night. Phoenix has a strong place in my heart.”
Urban will be playing to 15 times that capacity on Thursday, October 4, at Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix. The Graffiti U tour, named after the album of the same name, boasts a 93-member crew, and enough cable to carry electricity from Nashville to St. Louis. Urban is bringing 40 guitars with him.
He’s playing songs from his 5-month-old album as part of the 23-track, two-hour-plus set.
“We have a fairly good-sized production,” Urban says with a laugh. “It’s a really good mixed set. There are a lot of new songs threaded through the setlist, but there are no new songs back to back.
“I think every album has at least a song it in. There are six or so songs from Graffiti U.”
Don’t be quick to check setlist websites, either. Urban changes it up each night.
“The setlist gets tweaked each night depending on the feeling of the show,” Urban says. “Friday night is different than Sunday night. Indoors is different than outdoors. A hot night is different than a cool night. I make a little adjustment, not during the show, but sometimes, I do, actually.
“I’ll look at the venues, get a feel for the weather, get a feel for the vibe, look at the notes from the night before and get a feeling for things.”
Urban’s shows are joyful celebrations of music that makes fans put aside their problems. In previous shows, he made a phone call to a fan’s friend from the stage, and he’s given an onstage pre-wedding first dance performance of “Making Memories of Us” to a Detroit couple.
“We need to get off whatever we’re on just for a couple of hours,” says Urban, as he listens to Frank Sinatra on SiriuxXM on his bus.
“If we can agree for two hours, that’s an amazing thing. We need to find something we can all connect on and can share. As different as we all are—religiously, politically, every way imaginable—music brings everybody together in this event for a couple hours”
The album Graffiti U is filled with feeling itself. Urban worked with a group of songwriters and producers, some of whom he previously hadn’t collaborated with. Veterans included Greg Wells, Dann Huff, Mike Elizondo and JHart. Julia Michaels, J.R. Rotem, Captain Cuts and Jason Evigan (the son of actor Greg Evigan) were among the newbies. Urban sequenced the songs as he would a setlist
“There were no parameters or preconceived ideas,” Urban says. “I began this process with a completely blank canvas. Every initial spark is organic and then expanded upon, like the art of graffiti, so the name really fit the music. I also liked the idea of ‘you’ the listener (or the audience), because this is an inclusive experience. And because of my last name we had a little grammatical fun and shortened it to U. You get the idea.”
Working with new collaborators gave the record—and his mindset—an edge.
“It was the unknown,” Urban says. “I liked not knowing what’s going to happen once I got in the room with these people. I wrote with Captain Cuts. I heard about them, but I didn’t know them. They’re three collegiate guys in California. I was introduced to them through mutual friends.
“I was out in LA in a rental car and I went to a studio in a funky part of town. It was in a back alley. It looked like I was entering a place I wouldn’t go to in LA. But it was fantastic. It was the best time. I love those kinds of moments. It could have been a complete disaster of not working out or it could click. It clicked.”
Urban says the album has resonated with concertgoers. The responses change each night.
“The response has been extremely good live,” Urban says. “It’s interesting which songs on the record people want to hear. They cover the whole gamut, whether it’s ‘Gemini’ or ‘Love the Way It Hurts,’ you can see big pockets of people who want to hear those songs.
“They also want to hear ‘Fighter,’ ‘Coming Home,’ ‘Never Comin’ Down’ or ‘Texas Time,’ some of the more, dare I say, ‘mod country.’”
“Fighter,” an uplifting track featuring Carrie Underwood, was a dream to write.
“It was a very easy song to write,” he says about the fifth and final single from his 2016 album Ripcord. “Most of the track was done very quickly. The hardest part was trying to find a day when she could record it. I think we finally did it two months after the song was written. I just sat around waiting on the girl.”
Keith Urban w/Kelsea Ballerini, Ak-Chin Pavilion, 2121 N. 83rd Avenue, Phoenix, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, October 4, tickets start at $37.25.