Keith Urban talks New Orleans Jazz Fest, guitar solos and ‘synergistic engagement’
Nashville guitar hero Keith Urban is no stranger to the New Orleans Jazz Fest. He performed at the Fair Grounds in 2006 during the first Jazz Fest after Hurricane Katrina, then returned in 2009 with his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, to roam the grounds anonymously as an attendee.
He’ll take a break from judging live broadcasts of “American Idol” to headline the main Acura Stage on the 2015 Jazz Fest’s opening Friday (April 24), starting at 5:20 p.m. Earlier that afternoon, at 1:30, I’ll interview him at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage inside the Fair Grounds Grandstand; he may also play a song or two acoustically.
Calling recently from Los Angeles, Urban riffed on his previous visits to Jazz Fest, the benefits of tiny stages, the philosophy of the guitar solo, and “synergistic engagement.”
Q: You performed at Jazz Fest in 2006, the first one after Hurricane Katrina. The city and the festival were still very raw. What are your remembrances of that time?
Urban: It was extraordinary. We went down and got a guided tour from the Habitat for Humanity folks, to show us what was going on. It was mind-blowing to see what the condition of the town was still like at that point. That’s definitely etched in my memory.
But the gig itself is too, because it was just such a great crowd. I was a bit nervous — what are they gonna make of us at Jazz Fest? But they were an incredible audience.
Q: People were so excited that A, the festival was happening, and B, that they could get out, have fun, and take a break from the rebuilding effort. It was such an emotional festival all-around. I’m guessing you felt some of that.
Urban: Absolutely. And we went back a few years after that (in 2009). (Jazz Fest producer/director) Quint Davis asked us to come back. Nic and I went back down. I wasn’t performing. It was just a chance to go and see some of the other stages. Neil Young was performing at that event. It was a lot of great stuff going on, as there always is at Jazz Fest.
It was just a great vibe. That’s the other thing I love about. The vibe and energy of the whole grounds — it doesn’t matter where you go, it’s just that spirit, that strong spirit.
Q: Unlike most other festivals, Jazz Fest very much has a local identity, as well as having guests such as yourself from all over the world. It very much feels like a New Orleans event.
Urban: Yes. We’re looking forward to going back. I’m not sure if Nic is coming back for this one or not. I think she’s going to be working. I may be going it alone, unfortunately.
Q: At a festival like this, do you pretty much do your standard show, or do you tweak it for the setting?
Urban: I do what I do, but I also stay vigilant to adapt it wherever it feels right and the spirit moves. A lot of that is just feeling the audience. That’s anywhere that I play. I may have a set structure that I’m going to follow, but if what we’re doing could be better, than I’ll just bail on the next thing that we’re supposed to do and I’ll just riff it.
I just want to make a connection with the audience. I may have a set list that I think is going to do that, but for whatever reason it doesn’t feel like it’s making the connection I want, and I’ll just do anything. I’ll do an acoustic song, a cover that the audience can sing along with, anything to feel like we’re connected. And then once we’re connected, I’ll move on.
It’s just about staying connected. That’s all I really care about. Whatever it takes.