NORTHEAST CORRIDOR (AdAge.com) -- New Jersey's fall foliage blurred by, but it was tough to focus on much of anything but a certain fellow passenger on my New York-bound Amtrak train Nov. 16 from Philadelphia.
Grammy Award winner and international country music superstar Keith Urban was perched on a stool at the front of the train car, armed with little more than a guitar and amplifier. Dozens of his luckiest fans watched him with wide and watery eyes as he sang stripped-down versions of his greatest hits while the train we were all riding -- the great equalizer and novelty of the moment -- barreled through the dusk.
Mr. Urban had spent the day on the rails, having performed two pop-up shows -- one at New York's Penn Station and the other and Philadelphia 30th Street Station -- as part of his "Get Closer to Keith" promotion with Amtrak. The singer's latest album, "Get Closer," was released Tuesday, and his label reached out to Amtrak last week to give it a last-minute promotional jump-start that had never been orchestrated before. The event was brokered by Amtrak's entertainment-marketing shop, Matter.
"This is a one-of-a-kind event for both Keith and us," said David Lim, Amtrak's CMO, who also rode Mr. Urban's train Tuesday. "If you look at what his top cities are in terms of ticket sales [New York and Philadelphia], they're also our top cities. It lines right up with us."
Pop-up concepts have become a surprising marketing tool for many brands, especially for retailers looking to generate some buzz in an area where it has yet to take root. And musicians are no strangers at giving surprise public concerts -- think back to The Beatles 41 years ago playing on the rooftop of their Apple recording studio, or just this Monday when pop star Rihanna took to a pop-up stage in Times Square during rush hour -- to promote a project or album. The pop-up concept, or concert, is part branded entertainment, sampling and multi-brand marketing channel, and, like its kissing cousin the flash mob, it's reliant on social media to add a sheen of mystery to an event, making fans of a brand feel in the know.
In this case, it was a quick and quirky surprise for the singer's fans, who were alerted cryptically late Monday night and early Tuesday morning via Twitter and the Facebook pages of both Mr. Urban and Amtrak that the singer would be staging secret shows. Certainly, as I talked to fans in Philadelphia's largely female crowd that stood waiting for Mr. Urban to take the stage, there was a sense that many still didn't quite believe that such a megastar would actually materialize.
"Everyone is so chill," said one teenage girl, who had been waiting for an hour near the front of the tiny stage. "I mean, it's Keith Urban ... doesn't anybody get it?"
Maria Cotton, 45, of Williamstown, N.J., had barely had time to buy her copy of Mr. Urban's new album before jumping in her car and driving 40 minutes to the rumored location. She arrived at the station at 8 a.m., asked around to confirm she was in the right spot, and staked her position at the front of the stage.
As we waited, she told me she had been to 18 of Mr. Urban's concerts and planned to splurge her rewards miles on trips to see even more next year. She seemed thrilled to be seeing him in such a unique context. "He's my ultimate," Ms. Cotton said. "It's unbelievable the kind of energy he brings to the stage. ... I can't believe I'm seeing him today."
Mr. Lim said Amtrak has had some success with events and celebrity partnerships stemming from its National Train Day celebrations, which have been institutionalized since the success of the first in 2008. Since then it has hosted several prominent events on or around its trains with personalities such as Buddy Valastro of TLC's "The Cake Boss," Dr. Phil, who shot an entire episode on an Amtrak Acela train in 2009, and even President Barack Obama, part of whose 2008 campaign was captured on an Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Washington D.C.
Mr. Lim said these partnerships are effective ways to get would-be riders in the doors of train stations, or at least serve as reminders that rail travel is a viable option, especially in the Northeast.
Mr. Urban said he has always felt a connection with trains since his days of rail travel in Australia (the singer was born in New Zealand and is married to Australian actress Nicole Kidman). He said the romantic sense of adventure and freedom was an inspiration.
"For me, [performing] has always been about the songs, and about them connecting and being able to find relationships with people," he told me shortly after his Philadelphia set, just before boarding the train back to New York. "To be able to do them in such a crazy odd setting, it keeps it about me and the fans, and our connection."
There certainly was a connection, and because no performance of this scale had ever been attempted before on a moving Amtrak train, no one was exactly sure how it would all work. There was lots of giggling about train announcements interrupting the singer's recorded interviews, motion jolts threatening to knock him off his stool and passersby starring confusedly into the train car, many remaining completely oblivious despite the flashing cameras. As Mr. Urban performed, some fans and reporters clogged the narrow aisles while others peeked or pointed camera phones over their seats to get a better look, the sound struggling to reach far enough back for all to hear. Although the scenario had its kinks, for a minute I forgot just how strange the whole concept was and just enjoyed the ecstatic catchiness of the music.
"Maybe it's a little too early to know if this is gonna work..." Mr. Urban sang soulfully during the on-board performance of his oft-requested 2008 hit "You Look in My Shirt." I couldn't help but agree, at first, but a single look at Mr. Urban's adoring fans singing softly along to every word may have just convinced me.