Review: Sheryl Crow plays it safe at Pacific
Sheryl Crow's ultimately satisfying performance Wednesday night in Costa Mesa should have been the crowning gem of Pacific Amphitheatre's short season, a standout amid predictable repeat visits from all manner of nostalgia peddlers and plenty of kid bait.
Maybe that was an unfair expectation, for Crow has never been anything more than solidly predictable herself since she emerged nearly two decades ago with the sleeper smash "Tuesday Night Music Club." Yet unlike all but a few younger acts on Pacific's roster, the 50-year-old rocker is still a relevant figure in contemporary music – more than she has been in the past decade, actually, thanks to recent forays into richer musical heritage and a successful crossover into the country market.
That's why it was so disappointing to see Crow cruise through a hits parade with little regard for either the rest of her first-rate catalog or what direction she might take next.
Of course, the fact that she stuck almost exclusively to radio fare that built her reputation is probably reason enough for Wednesday's near-capacity crowd to consider this among the best shows of Pacific's five-week run. Give the people what they want, indeed, and Crow obliged: Out of 15 songs in roughly 90 minutes, only three tunes were less than familiar to even casual admirers – four if you count her "Cars" contribution "Real Gone."
That tally of deep cuts included an adequate reading of the political-made-personal piece "Members Only" (from her self-titled 1996 disc) and a soothing rendition of "Home" (from her best album, 1998's "The Globe Sessions"), along with a new CCR-driven groove that didn't seem fully ready for public consumption.
The rest of the set largely reflected her chart history, from her breakthrough single "All I Wanna Do" to her cover of Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is the Deepest" (replete with a meandering story about meeting its author) and on through a rousing finish, with a hearty handling of "If It Makes You Happy" and the playful "Soak Up the Sun" leading to an overwrought encore of "Everyday Is a Winding Road." The audience, on their feet virtually the entire time, sang along to every word.
So what's to gripe about, right? Only that Crow is capable of much more, thematically and energetically.
The first point is almost forgivable: She shouldn't be faulted for playing it smart (or should that be safe?) before a fair-going crowd that might not have abided a set of dusted-off obscurities. Still, it showed a lack of faith in both her material and her fans' patience that she completely dismissed her last three albums, two of which (2008's robust "Detours" and 2010's soul-drenched "100 Miles from Memphis") are among her finest and all of which nearly topped the charts – so it isn't as though no one ever heard them.
Worse, however, is that Crow initially seemed to lack the enthusiasm to properly pull off this gig. Maybe a day at Disneyland with her two toddlers (among the many topics that lead to dead-end asides this night) left her wiped out. Regardless, at first she seemed to be phoning in her performance, meagerly executing staple songs with all the excitement of a lounge lizard crooning "Feelings" for the thousandth time.
It didn't help that the show's sound engineer had things all out of whack; her vocals were so far out in front of her sterling five-man band that for the first half of the set that crew might as well have been playing inside the Hangar over at the fair. The gap began to narrow with thicker rock jams like "A Change Would Do You Good" and "Real Gone," both punctuated by superb fretwork from Peter Stroud and Audley Freed (once of the Black Crowes), who often traded solos with the harmonious skill of Don Felder and Joe Walsh back in the Eagles' heyday.
Yet Crow's voice continued to overwhelm everything – unfortunately so for "Everyday Is a Winding Road." By that point it was painfully obvious that her lung power was failing, her biggest notes routinely cracking.
No question she had fun up there: Despite obligatory sauntering to the sides of the stage early on (it felt like she was hitting marks), Crow, clad in tight black leather pants and an equally clingy top that made her look like a middle-age Leather Tuscadero, eventually began to loosen up, smile more, toss in some vamped oomph on key phrases. Why it took so long to warm up to 8,000 eagerly cheering fans, then, is baffling. She clearly knew how to turn on those booster jets for a similar set at Stagecoach in April.
And not going the extra mile by bulking up her set with bonuses that could have lent greater heft to her performance is simply a letdown, even if doing so would have required losing a pretty terrific opening turn from rustic but ripping Americana group honeyhoney. Sheryl Crow is better than this – or, at least, she can be.
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