Sheryl Crow On Capturing Essence Of A Historic Venue In New Live At The Capitol Theatre Collection
By Jim Ryan
Since 1926, the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York has hosted entertainers running the gamut from vaudeville to rock, featuring legendary performances by The Grateful Dead in particular and televised sets by artists like David Bowie and The Rolling Stones.
Legend has it Janis Joplin debuted “Mercedes Benz” on the Capitol stage on August 8, 1970 after writing it at a Port Chester bar and, following renovations in 2011, the theatre reopened with a performance by Bob Dylan.
All of which is to say that it’s the type of storied venue that can have an impact of its own on a live recording.
On November 10, 2017, flanked by eighteen 4K cameras, Sheryl Crow and band recorded a concert which is now available in several editions via LP, CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes.
Culled from 25 years worth of hits, the collection was recorded during her “Be Myself” tour under the direction of Mark Ritchie with producer Barry Summers.
“I love those guys. They’re real throwbacks to all those old rock shows,” said Crow of working Ritchie and Summers on the project. “You could tell just being around them in that environment of Capitol Theatre how stoked they were. They’re kids like us. I really liked working with those guys.”
I spoke with Crow about performing for the first time at the Capitol Theatre, the success of her collaboration with St. Vincent on a new single and where she sees her recording future heading as she preps the release of a 2019 album which could act as the final one from an artist who’s sold over fifty million of them worldwide.
A lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation follows below...
Q. Well, thanks to eighteen 4K cameras, and its historic past, the Capitol Theatre itself almost kind of sits in as a member of your band. What was that show like and what does the release of this collection mean to you?
Sheryl Crow: Well, the history of that place definitely played a huge factor in the way that the entire evening came out. And part of it is there are very few rooms in America where you can feel the history of rock and roll in the DNA. That place has captured some of the greatest performances by some of the greatest artists. And I had never been there. So it was such a heavy vibe for me and so inspiring.
And then you compound that with this band that I have that I love and that is so heavily inspired by the artists that have played there - from Clapton and Dylan to the Grateful Dead - so I think we all kind of took that in and it became, I think, as worthy of a member of the band as perhaps any of us that were standing there on that stage.
We’re going on six years and I’ve just been really grateful to have some of the best musicians that I’ve ever played with and some of the best musicians that have come out of Nashville or anywhere else.
I feel pretty blessed by the fact that I have 25 years now of catalog to pull from, so it gives us sort of the freedom to not just play the hits.
And this record that the evening kind of pulls from, the Be Myself record, is still a very important record for me. Because it relates so heavily to what’s been going on the last few years - not only in the country but what’s been going on in our politics and sort of in the ether just attitudinally and even what it’s like to raise kids in this environment.
It really speaks to social media and our disconnect and even though that was a heavy record, it’s really fun to play.
That was a great evening. We just did our best to bring it.
Q. I saw you in September on a very rainy day in Louisville. And you said from the stage, of your latest single, “I’m 56, I’m a woman and I’ve got a song on the radio.” I think people take that for granted because they always hear Sheryl Crow songs on the radio - but a new song is a different story and that’s not easy to pull off. Especially coming out of your experience in the country format, what did the success of "Wouldn't Want to be Like You" mean? Was it kind of validating in a way?
SC: I mean, not only validating but shocking.
It’s impossible to penetrate the pop format now, really, unless you’re 30 years and younger - maybe 25 years and younger.
Not only that, you never hear music that speaks to what’s going on in politics. A culturally or sociopolitically motivated lyric is just unheard of in these days.
And Annie Clark (St. Vincent)... she’s not only amazing but she’s able to break through some of the norms. I think she really was - not to sell myself short - largely responsible for my getting on some of these youth oriented formats.
Even getting played in what used to be called Triple A [radio format], that was just a total gift to hear myself on the radio with other artists like Courtney Barnett.
Q. You mention those songs like that that address the world. You’ve never been afraid to speak your mind as a socially conscious artist. And I feel like during a time like the 90s, it was easier to pull that off. It wasn’t impossible to actually provoke a productive conversation. But, today, everything, including art, becomes divisive fast. How do you go about approaching that as an artist?
SC: Honestly, I don’t think about it. I just do what I do because I can’t help it.
A lot of my catalog that got played at radio wasn’t the stuff that was politically driven. So a lot of people don’t associate me with writing political songs.
As I get older, obviously, I’m even more free to write what I want to write about without thinking of how to fit into pop radio because I know there’s not an opportunity to get played there. So, in some ways, it’s sort of liberating.
It’s really interesting… I don’t feel my age (Except for that I’ve been around long enough to see the difference in life now). And I’ve been around long enough now that I’m raising young children to see how those differences are effecting how they’re going to look at their world. It makes me not only frightened but it makes me extremely angry with some of the unconsciousness of what’s going on around us.
I think more than anything what disturbs me is the fact that it’s one thing to have a leader like what we have but it’s another thing for so many good people to be buying into what he’s saying. And that’s what concerns me.
But it’s so antithetical to what you’re teaching your children about - what truth is and about what empathy is and what compassion is and acceptance - that it’s just really a mind-bender.
So for me to sit down with a guitar, I cannot ignore it. It just becomes a part of the environment of writing.
Q. Has the industry move away from the album kind of empowered you a bit to focus on a collection like Live at the Capitol or on a single you’re proud of as opposed to the investment of time and effort a full album requires?
SC: Yeah. I’ve just completed a record called Threads. It’s completely collaborative. Every tune, I’ve called in people and asked them to be a part of what will definitely be my last album.
As I was writing an EP after the last record came out, Be Myself, and the immediacy of writing “Wouldn’t Want to be Like You,” and being able to just put it straight out - it felt like tweeting basically.
The immediacy of tweeting, and of going online and seeing news that’s going to change all day, is like albums: you work for a year making an album - you compile what has a beginning, a middle and an end - and then, by the time you put it out, if it is social commentary of any kind, sometimes it feels old. As soon as you’ve written it, it’s done. It’s old.
I love the idea of being able to write a song, and put it out immediately, and have its moment be in the moment as opposed to waiting for the entire statement.
And I have loved making albums but, sort of at my age, I’m feeling, what’s the point? People don’t buy records and they don’t listen to them top to bottom. So I can spend a couple of weeks thrashing over the album order and no one will have ever known what that was anyway.
Q. Is what’s going on in the world right now manifesting itself on your upcoming record?
SC: There are a couple of things on there that I hope that forever more I will be associated with. And one of them is a song that Johnny Cash recorded of mine and now I’m doing my version with him. And, I think, whether people gravitate to it or not, it is the most real, artistic statement I probably will have ever made.
So, I’m looking forward to that coming out and I’m hoping that it penetrates all the noise out there and that people find some solace in that song.
Because we’re just really being stretched I think as people and as humans and as citizens. And hearing him sing - even for me, having heard it a gazillion times now - it just brings me such comfort.
So I’m hoping that people will have the same experience when and if they hear it.
Q. You cut your teeth doing jingles, singing background and touring with a number of artists for years before finding solo success. Today, everyone wants that success immediately. And there are reality shows that cater to that. Would everything you achieved have been possible if it was just thrown at you immediately instead of being something which required years of work first?
SC: I always say this to everyone who asks me about those reality contest shows: I could not have competed in that environment. I think I wouldn’t have been able to sustain the career that I’ve had, with the ups and downs, and really stuck with it, if it had been handed to me.
We started out in a van playing for ten people and watched our audience grow by ten people every night. To watch that and be excited about getting an RV and then a bus…
By the time you make it to where people have any idea who you are, you have really put in the hours and you’ve gotten to have the opportunity to figure out who you are on stage.
Now, with social media and with YouTube, it’s all out there. And people can decide whether they want to go see you by watching you and deciding whether you’re good enough to spend the money on.
So I feel rather grateful to have come up the way that I did.