By Mike Finkelstein
On a surprisingly cold night for early September, Sheryl Crow and her band rolled through the Greek Theater last weekend and gave the capacity crowd a classic demonstration of the old adage, “The show must go on.” As the program began, Crow — wearing sparkling shorts that showcased her very toned legs and a blouse with no real sleeves, — informed us that she had picked up a bug from one of her children and was ill with the “flu.” (It was later diagnosed as laryngitis). This made it a special night of sorts as the show’s focal point was probably going to be less than optimal. Her voice did flicker and crack a few times during some of the delicate stretches, but her effort was a valiant one. Playing with a band as large and talented as hers compensated for her weakened voice and actually lent an aura of grace under pressure to the evening.
As the band hit the stage attired in dressed down urban hip jeans and shirts, you couldn’t help but be impressed by the size of the group; ten players is quite a few for a rock band. Two drummers, two guitarists, two backup singers, two horns, bass, keyboards and Crow herself added up to a big sound onstage. Having two voices in several different levels of the sound mix, gave the band options. Most of these options tended towards supporting the song, rather than stepping out for extended solos. The drummers (Homer Steinweiss and Justin Stanley, who also played guitar) and horns (Printz Board/trumpet and Tim Orindgreff/sax) blended their counter rhythms to make the band’s engine hum and allow Crow to back down some of her vocals to get through the long show. Ultimately that musical engine wasn’t opened up much or allowed to rev things up to the higher level they had the potential to reach.
Crow’s new CD, 100 Miles From Memphis , a geographic reference to her hometown in Missouri, is her effort to make a soul album. The recording was well represented in the set, with over half the songs coming from her latest release. The sound of the new material was steeped in the soul and r&b arrangements that she listened to and adored while growing up so close to the source of all that classic music . There was some tasty juxtaposition of straight ahead rock progressions with soul structures on songs such as the title track. But, well-played as the new material was, most of it didn’t really transcend the genre. Her version of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name” got over mostly for the poignant lyrics and not for the musical delivery.
Despite all of the musical resources assembled onstage, the show didn’t take many chances. The arrangements, while crisp, were conservative enough to remain uninspiring. This being said, it must be noted that Doyle Bramhall II played a beautiful, show stopping slide intro to “Long Road Home” on a capoed and open-tuned electric guitar that rattled and resonated through the cold night air like the loudest dobro on a hot bayou evening. Not only did his guitar sound phenomenal but he played it like Albert King, left handed and strung upside down with the lower strings towards the floor.
Crow is still a huge name in popular music. She has sold millions of albums and has often collaborated with such diverse musical luminaries as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Luciano Pavorotti and Michael Jackson. Her best songs feature a genuinely unique and tasteful blend of all of her musical influences from rock and roll to soul to folk, country and pop. Fortunately, she did deliver several of her most recognizable and well-conceived hits, which served to remind us of how timeless those songs sound. Her renderings of “Every Day Is A Winding Road,” “All I Wanna Do” and “Are You Strong Enough To Be My Man” sounded great, featuring clever lyrics and arrangements that allowed every musical voice to breathe while still sounding big.
Between songs, her banter was winsome and, in introducing “Are You Strong Enough…,” she offered a clever list of criteria that included being a Democrat who out-earns her (good luck with that one!). In addition, the mere title of the song spoke to her well-publicized personal (her failed romance with Lance Armstrong) and physical (she is a breast cancer survivor) ups and downs. Late in the show the band glided through “All I Wanna Do,” a wonderful rubbery, traipsing, beer and nicotine soaked view of Los Angeles while playing and writing songs until sunrise. At this point, she had her backup singers come off their platform and each sang lead magnificently, as they did in the harmonies they provided all night. Having once been a backup singer for another star named Michael Jackson, Crow knew to give them a chance to shine for a moment. Like much of her set, this moment passed too quickly, leaving the listener wanting a lot more.
The show was opened by Colbie Caillat , a warm-voiced young lady wearing thigh high suede boots, who had an enthusiastic following of her own on hand. At 25, she is a prominent member of a new crossover generation of pop/country/acoustic artists who play a rather bland style of contemporary music featuring prominent, bouncy acoustic guitar, soft melodic hooks, and positive lyrics. The genre seems to have crossed right into the mainstream, and her songs are sure to heard on the mixes piped into malls, eateries and offices across the country. She and Jason Mraz collaborated in the studio to write and sing the very cute and catchy soft pop hit “Lucky,” which won a Grammy for Pop Duet earlier this year. It was interesting to watch her band go through the paces of delivering their set with a concentration and focus that didn’t quite seem to fit the ease of their sound. Although they sounded laid back and polished, they also looked incongruously stiff at times. At the end of the set they covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and the tension clearly lifted as the band members relaxed, moved naturally and began bopping and grinning at each other as they finally got to cut loose and begin to rock, if only for a little while.
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