Before Keith Urban met Brenda from Minneapolis, he took a good look around the room.
He could see almost everything. He was playing the first official concert in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino’s brand-spanking-new concert venue, part of a $720 million mega-expansion in Tampa that’s celebrating its grand opening all weekend.
He saw fans sitting, fans standing, all having paid at least $200 (or gotten extremely lucky) for the privilege. He could make out faces in the very back row, and read a few signs they brought in.
“'You had me at Toby Keith,' and you crossed out Toby,” Urban said, squinting to read through the spotlight, as fans laughed. “Tough room. I should’ve been a cowboy.”
Urban was having a good time, and he wasn’t alone. While most of the celebrities who came out for Thursday’s celebratory guitar smash — including Urban’s wife Nicole Kidman — were long gone, Friday’s show was the casino’s main event, and the first glimpse Tampa Bay got of its newest, sparkliest concert venue.
Well, sort of. The show sold out quickly, despite the high prices, and that’s not counting scads of contest winners and high-roller comps. Gamblers needed a rabbit’s foot to get in.
As a concert space, it ain’t CBGB. It’s basically a hotel ballroom. You know that scene in A Star Is Born where Jackson Maine plays a pharmaceutical conference? This room has that kind of energy. It’s a malleable space by design, one that can host a rock concert, a wedding expo and, if necessary, both at the same time.
Haters may say it’s fake, but they must also admit, however begrudgingly, that there’s a market for this kind of concert. Keith Urban normally plays for 20,000 fans at a time, not 1,300; it takes an organization with pockets as deep as the Seminole Tribe to make it worth his while to scale down. There are fans who value luxury and exclusivity (and seats!) over gritty authenticity. This room’s mainly for them.
On the other hand, if you decide to splurge or simply luck into a ticket, the show you get at the Hard Rock will be unlike most others in this market. It really does feel like a private, invite-only show, which, if you’re a big fan, is an experience that was pretty hard to buy until now.
If the room’s trade-show aesthetic got to Urban, it didn’t show. (The Hard Rock’s undoubtedly posh back-of-house experience had to have helped.) The Country Music Association’s reigning Entertainer of the Year succeeded in getting many fans out of their seats throughout the concert, with only a few holdouts up front by the end.
Urban’s signature driving, pulsing country-rock singles — Days Go By, Somewhere In My Car, Somebody Like You — pumped life throughout the house, as did his electrifying guitar playing on Long Hot Summer and Coming Home. His fretboard sorcery was dang near show-offy on Somebody Like You, as he twinged and pinged the strings of his beat-up Fender like a maestro.
He mixed things up to keep things interesting, laying down some slappa-da-bass riddims on John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16; breaking out the relatively rare Texas Time; and unplugging for a couple of acoustic songs, including the new, nostalgic We Were. He thew in a few power ballads (Parallel Line, Cop Car), a drunken jukebox slow-dancer (Blue Ain’t Your Color) and, in keeping with the whole “John Cougar” thing, a couple of ’70s and ’80s sidebars (Marshall Tucker Band’s Can’t You See, U2′s With or Without You).
Above all, Urban seemed to want to give all the VIPs a very VIP performance. He said he decided to play an acoustic Only You Can Love Me This Way only after several fans in a pre-show meet-and-greet told him it was their wedding song. On the Def Leppardy You Gonna Fly, he took the guitar off his back, signed it in silver, and handed it to a fan down front. On the disco-bouncy The Fighter, he hopped off stage and crossed the floor, fans grasping his way the whole time, to sing at a mic near the back.
Shortly before confetti showered the crowd on closer Wasted Time, he took one last moment to bask in the place’s new-venue smell.
“To all the Hard Rock folks, all the staff that have worked so hard to get this place open and get it rocking and get it happening, amazing feat,” he said. “Behind the scenes, there are thousands that brought this beautiful thing to life.”
And then there was Brenda from Minneapolis.
Her name was Brenda Grapevine, mid-40s, a Keith Urban superfan who flew in just for the show — the exact type of fan the Hard Rock hopes this venue will lure to Tampa. She brought a handmade sign for Urban, the gist of which was a little confusing — it had something to do with Urban’s official social media handles — but it caught the singer’s eye. So he called her up on stage.
Brenda’s sign included a reference to the Tommy Tutone song 867-5309/Jenny, which Urban, ’80s-rock fanboy that he is, really dug.
“Brenda, Brenda, you’re the girl for me!” he sang. “Let’s do that song for you. We’ll have a good time. What could possibly go wrong?”
And so Urban and his band called a setlist audible and played 867-5309, changing “Jenny" to “Brenda,” with Urban confessing, “I have no idea why I’m doing this,” but nonetheless grinning like mad. He even let Brenda sing the last line.
“This why he’s the entertainer of the year!” Brenda said as the crowd cheered.
Talk about a jackpot. An experience like that, $720 million can’t buy.