2008 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Sheryl Crow Delivers Without Passion

Classic-Rock Queen Tours To Support Sixth Disc

MADISON, Wis. — Like the backup singer that she once was, Sheryl Crow knows all too well the importance of giving people what’s expected.

Photo: A&M Records

Photo: A&M Records

Before her multi-platinum recording career, the fraternizing with the classic-rock elite or the tabloid-worthy relationships with Eric Clapton and Lance Armstrong, Crow was a professional hired hand for Michael Jackson, Don Henley and others. As such, she learned that making cues and fulfilling your slotted role was all important. After all, if she didn’t hit her mark, she would be out of a job.

Now that Crow is the star, it’s a lesson that she has retained. At Wednesday night’s concert at Alliant Energy Center, she was, as always, the dutiful people pleaser. The Goldilocked singer played almost all of her greatest hits, sang well, appropriately prowled the stage and occasionally pointed at the back rows like the ’70s arena-rock gods that she worships.

And yet, her performance was largely perfunctory. Missing was any sense of true excitement — no danger, originality or sense of emotional availability.

Maybe expecting a barnburner isn’t something we should really expect from the queen of classic-rock redux. She is a play-it-safe artist. However, it would be two of Crow’s onstage guests whose passion as well as their natural talents that would ultimately outshine her. They proved — to Crow’s detriment — that musical precision sometimes just isn’t enough. Real gusto and a little spontaneity can go a long way to making a performance a night to remember.

Crow’s set, which ran for an hour and 45 minutes, was evenly divided between her big radio hits from the ’90s and cuts off her new album, “Detours.” She began with tracks from the new record, taking “God Bless This Mess” alone and purposefully duplicated the cut’s Dylan-esque strumming on acoustic guitar. She followed that with a wallop from her whole band that would’ve made Neil Young envious. The simple, ragged power of “Shine Over Babylon” was forceful, but not entrancing and it seemed odd when Crow waved hands above her head like she was her idol Stevie Nicks during the breakdown. The rock-steady rhythm of “Love Is Free” had a lighter feel and was the first musical inkling of that easy-going likeability that so many of her songs are burnished with.

By the fourth song, the old chestnut “A Change Would Do You Good,” it became obvious that her accompanists, like the audience, were much more keen to run through her older material than to play the less-tuneful new selections. Oddly, her eight-member band looked like a menagerie of rock-history lookalikes. Her pirate guitar player was an albino Jimmy Page. The heavy-handed drummer was a dead ringer for “The Song Remains The Same”-era John Bonham. A clone of Elliott Smith was on rhythm guitar and her bassist was identical to his counterpart in Minneapolis alt-country group the Jayhawks. Throw in a keyboard player, two backup singers and a percussionist surrounded by a junkyard of assorted cymbals, urns, vases and hubcab-like instruments and you had Crow’s personal orchestra — one who was capable of breezing through all the oldies touchstones that keep popping up in her music.

If her bandmates or Crow herself were just going through the motions, the audience seemed oblivious. Many of the mostly middle-aged and heavily female crowd seemed just happy to be out of the house for awhile on a school night. Among those spectators was Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and multi-instrumentalist Dan McMahon of Wisconsin country-rock act the Wandering Sons, who could be seen roaming around backstage.

To Crow’s credit, she was a hard-working and engaging performer. Dressed in tiny black jeans, high heels and a small, embroidered and sparkly vest that looked like she snipped it off one of Stevie Nick’s capes, she was charmingly earnest. She teased her fellow musicians and lounged on her guitar player. She’d dance around the stage with the mic — sometimes like she was on the catwalk, other times like she was doing a hip-swiveling tango — and reveled in the band’s note-perfect execution. She was also light and self-deprecating. She laughed it off when she missed her cue during “A Change Would Do You Good.” (What would Don Henley said?)

Crow and company were strongest not surprisingly during renditions of her best-known gems. This was not only because of the huge choruses that she typically tucks into them, but also because she’d give her musicians a little wiggle room in the arrangement. Her guitar player inserted some little licks into the power-chord-crunch of “My Favorite Mistake.” She allowed her bespectacled organ player to take a longer electric piano solo and then shared harmony vocals with the Elliott Smith doppelganger. Similarly, “Drunk With The Thought Of You” featured interplay between a mandolin and a couple of acoustic guitars as well as organ accents, which deepened what was essentially a rewrite of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” New song “Out Of Our Heads” even had an unlikely Caribbean calypso interlude that was a momentarily respite from all of this rawk. Maybe Gloria Estefan falls under Crow’s student-of-rock purview, too.

These little ad-libs didn’t always work though. She extended “Gasoline,” another track off of “Detours,” into the kind of mini-epic that it could never hope to be. The song is an obvious rip-off of her biggest hit, “All I Wanna Do,” with the same syncopated rhythm and jive-talking vocal delivery. She propped it up by segueing with the band into the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” for a few bars during the breakdown. This again won back those whose attention was drifting away. But was she unknowingly revealing how she and Lenny Kravitz learned to write such ’60s mimicking songs?

Like a great fireworks show, Crow kept the audience’s interest up by saving the biggest bangs for the end. The glistening pop of “Soak Up The Sun” was as wonderfully cheerful and frivolous as it was a couple of summers ago. With “If It Makes You Happy,” she finally got the crowd on their feet. The appearance of opening act, neo-country siren Brandi Carlile, on vocals raised the energy level even higher. Ducking the song’s mammoth guitar chords, the two traded verses and peered at each other as they harmonized together.

Contrast Crow’s performance with that of Carlile’s and it was painfully clear who felt they had something to prove on stage. Washington state-native Carlile showcased her natural vocal abilities and used it win over the polite crowd with her mostly unfamiliar material, letting her giant voice fill and transform the concrete arena into her own Grand Old Opry. Her falsetto was just as gargantuan and breathy as Sarah McLachlan’s, but with an obvious country yodel.

She kept her four-piece band hooked up to a plow of a steady, mid-tempo rhythm for most of the set, but the combo relished the chance to rock out as it did during a electrifying take on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” She even broke a taboo by singing a solo, acoustic version of Jeff Buckley’s frequently-imitated rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but her vocal chops earned her a reprieve.

Like Crow, Carlile plays the part of a seasoned pro on stage and strikes all the cliché poses that rock stars feel they need to make in big venues. Maybe she felt she needed to really work the audience. At one point, she asked, “Do the people of Madison like country music?” The response she got was uncomfortably muted. But after her song was over, everyone did.

When it was Crow’s turn in the spotlight, however, her usually formidable vocal talents sounded underpowered and mired in a pleasing mid-range as compared to Carlile’s, whose voice was as imposing as a cathedral organ.

Crow was again relegated to second-class status when she closed out her set by inviting Nielsen onstage for a take on Cheap Trick’s classic “I Want You To Want Me.” It was a brave move, but one that succeeded in winning back all of those in the cheap seats who were collecting their belongings. They turned their eyes back to the stage to see Crow and her band giddy at the full-throttle energy of the tune.

The real marvel was Nielsen, who wowed everyone with his spastic but lovable showboating. He played the riff that he’s probably thousands of times with savagery, and proved that one could still make ear candy to the joy of radio executives and record company overlords and yet be edge-y and aggressive.

When Crow came back for an encore of an adequate “All I Wanna Do” and “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” it was completely anticlimactic. She had throngs of people dancing stiffly as they segued slowly toward the exits. Again, Crow was doing only what she felt she needed to do. She didn’t realize Nielsen and Carlile had already shown her the way. Performing is more than just demonstrating your professionalism. It’s about going for it with everything you have.

Sheryl, maybe a change would do you good.

Sheryl Crow’s Remaining Tour Dates:

  • Thursday, June 5, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Monday, June 9, Morrison, Colo.
  • Wednesday, June 11, Los Angeles
  • Thursday, June 12, Santa Barbara, Calif.
  • Friday, June 13, Murphys, Calif.
  • Thursday, July 24, Nashville
  • Saturday, July 26, Uncasville, Conn.
  • Monday, July 28, Wantagh, N.Y.
  • Tuesday, July 29, Holmdel, N.J.
  • Wednesday, July 30, Mansfield, Mass.
  • Thursday, July 31, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
  • Saturday, Aug. 2, Philadelphia
  • Sunday, Aug. 3, Canandaigua, N.Y.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 5, Clarkston, Mich.
  • Wednesday, Aug. 6, Green Bay, Wis.
  • Friday, Aug. 8, Milwaukee
  • Saturday, Aug. 9, Minneapolis
  • Sunday, Aug. 10, Highland Park, Ill.
  • Wednesday, Aug. 13, Bossier, La.
  • Thursday, Aug. 14, The Woodlands, Texas
  • Friday, Aug. 14, Dallas
  • Saturday, Aug. 16, Oklahoma City
  • Monday, Aug. 18, Albuquerque, N.M.
  • Tuesday, Aug. 19, Tucson, Ariz.
  • Thursday, Aug. 21, San Diego, Calif.
  • Friday, Aug. 22, Las Vegas
  • Saturday, Aug. 23, Stateline, Nev.
  • Monday, Aug. 25, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Wednesday, Aug. 27, Concord, Calif.
  • Friday, Aug. 29, Troutdale, Ore.
  • Saturday, Aug. 30, Auburn, Wash.
  • Tuesday, Sept, 23, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
  • Wednesday, Sept, 24, London, Ontario, Canada
  • Thursday, Sept. 25, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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