1 NOVEMBER 2014
[LIVE REVIEW] BluesFest, London, UK - 31 October (TheArtDesk.com)
By Matthew Wright
A likeable and energetic performance, but how much more could she be?
Sheryl Crow doesn’t do genres. She may have recorded her first authentically country album, Feels Like Home, in Nashville recently, but for her, the tag seems to mean little. “It’s country, but it just sounds like a Sheryl Crow record,” she told the BluesFest audience last night, and whenever the subject came up afterwards, she put finger-wiggling inverted commas around term “country”. She gives her audience what she knows they like, and what she knows she likes, too.
As if to emphasise brand Sheryl, new songs and back catalogue were cheerfully mixed from the start. “All I Wanna Do” got feet tapping early on, with a brave attempt at an audience singalong (she knows she’s in Britain, right?); “Can’t Cry Anymore” saw some high-wire guitar duets from Robert Kearns and Audley Freed; “Best of Times” was one of several tracks to enjoy a pealing burst of harmonica; while “Strong Enough” had an evocative section of close harmony singing.
There’s much to enjoy about a Crow live gig. Someone has put substantial money and thought into the extravagant video display behind the band, which displayed a diverse montage ranging from the hokey - footage of old-time country fairs - to the frankly Daliesque. She and her substantial band played non-stop for over two hours, working the audience from a London torpor to a swaying delirium. Though she expressed ambivalence about her rock-star status several times, she still looks, moves, and sings like one, if only you could hear her voice.
It wouldn’t be a gig at the Royal Albert Hall without some quibbles about the sound balance, but it was striking to listen to the same songs at home on CD and hear Crow’s voice, completely audible over the backing. The overwhelming volume of the band made for a powerful rock atmosphere, and there can’t have been many who didn’t already know most of the inaudible lyrics, but the balance of sound would have been more varied with a stronger contribution from her supple vocal range.
Trouble is, when you hear a lot of Crow’s songs back-to-back, they do begin to sound the same. The lyrics are slick and enjoyable, and her voice, when you can hear it, is extremely versatile, belting and caressing with equal conviction. She has an electric mode and an acoustic mode - there was much swapping of guitars - and the harmonica and close-harmony singing are nice touches of variety. But still, the formula persists. The mood builds song by song, the guitarists thrash a rock-lite backing. You yearn for moments of intimacy and introspection in vain; like “Soak Up the Sun”, the Hawaiian video to which (and it could just as well have been made for a deodorant ad) played for the audience basking in an Indian summery warmth, everything becomes a kind of power anthem. She has all of the skills and experience to turn the Sheryl Crow sound into something radically new. Or several things radically new. But perhaps that’s not what gets you on nationwide drivetime programmes.
In a recent interview, she talked about how her home town of Kennett (bordering Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee) has changed little over the past decades, except that Walmart has arrived, and downtown has disintegrated. Several of her videos showed Southern, small-town fairs, and country musicians with bad glasses and no teeth, as if her country songs drew on that tradition. But actually, in her determination to apply the recognisable Crow sound to everything, she isn’t the characterful downtown independents, she’s the Walmart.