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Urban's renewal Gifted guitarist holds back his demons and brings some grit back to country music

Back in 2003, while being interviewed by www.concertlivewire.com, country renegade/legend Merle Haggard did a pretty good job of describing the contemporary country music environment.

"Oh, it's a lot different than what I call country," Haggard told his interviewer.

"I really don't think that's what it is. It's sort of country without the grit, you know? Pretty generic and pretty smooth. I enjoy the videos with the sound off, where you can look at the belly buttons and everything.

"Really some pretty girls, but I don't know about the music."

No better description has yet been offered of the world a modern country artist like Keith Urban has inherited.

Country, and the Nashville that produces and oversees it, Big Brother-style, has become an uber-slick form of mildly Southern pop music. Long gone is the "grit" of which Haggard speaks. Today, if you want a country hit, you play the game by rules not necessarily of your own design. The videos, now as important to country chart success as they once were to rock music near the birth of MTV, are not unlike hip-hop videos -- both are long on the glitz, the scantily clad women, the overtly codified melodrama.

What's an honest country boy to do?

Urban, who is an Australian-American born in New Zealand, has had great success in the modern country world. Seven U.S. country No. 1 hits; 15 singles in the Top Ten; two platinum-selling U.S. Top Ten albums. Not bad for a singer-songwriter who was already battling drug addiction by the time he released his debut solo album in the States, back in 1998.

Why does Urban matter? What separates him from so many of his country-pop brethren?

Simply put, it's his guitar playing.

On record, Urban is not so different from his contemporaries. Catch him in concert, however -- which you'll have the chance to do when he arrives at HSBC Arena at 8 p.m. Saturday -- and you're in for an exhilarating, six-string-fueled ride, a jaunt with pit stops in rock 'n' roll, honky-tonk, blues, pop and R&B. Urban is your tour guide. And by golly, that boy loves to play the gee-tar.

In essence, Urban has made a deal with the devil, or at the very least, a compromise with the devil's earthly agents.

Yeah, he's good-looking, and yeah, he's willing to use that to his advantage.

Urban also seems quite comfortable cranking out heavily produced, brilliantly sheened albums that have about as much to do with country music as do the Goo Goo Dolls. (Translation: nothing at all.)

And yet, once he hits the road in support of those albums -- the latest of which, the solid but sort of lazy "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing," is already platinum -- Urban turns into something that would seem to be at odds with his "country-pop hottie" image. He turns into a virtuoso musician fronting a band of fellow virtuoso musicians. In fact, there are times during an Urban set when his is one of four electric guitars cranking out a post-Bakersfield country-rock din.

This might surprise members of the Urban audience out there to hear the hits. Urban, naturally, plays those hits with conviction. But one can't help but get the impression that the guy is just biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to grab his Fender Telecaster firmly by the neck and let it know who's boss.

Anyone who caught the televised portions of the Live Earth marathon concert this summer likely saw Urban and his band, joined by R&B singer-pianist Alicia Keys, tearing through a barn-burning take on the Jagger/Richards anthem "Gimme Shelter." Urban looked just like the kid who cut school to spend the day with his buddies at the pool hall and got away with it. He rocked, gleefully, and somehow found the authentic strains of country and blues in the Stones' masterpiece.

You might own every album Keith Urban has released to date, but those few minutes on stage during Live Earth told us more about the man than a dozen hit singles ever could.

Catch Urban in concert. He's likely to surprise you, whichever side of the contemporary country music debate you come down on.

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Warm-up act

Get ready for Saturday's show with "Keith Urban: Invitation Only," which debuts at 10 tonight on the CMT network. The one-hour concert film documents an intimate Nashville gig Urban hosted earlier this year. The special will also stream on www.CMT.com.

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On the Web

Read The News' review of Keith Urban's August 2005 show at the Erie County Fair on the Gusto page at www.buffalonews.com.

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WHO: Keith Urban

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: HSBC Arena

TICKETS: $39.50 to $59.50 (box office, Tickets.com)

INFO: www.hsbcarena.com

-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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