7 June 2017, Grammy Museum and 8 June 2017, Greek Theater, Los Angeles, CA
It’s been a few months since I last wrote here (my Liv On review had a huge response in February), and now that my summer concert season has begun, it’s great to return with another powerful woman artist, Sheryl Crow, who has intrigued me for more than two decades and always drawn me to her musical ventures.
Back in the 1990s when most people were getting into grunge and alt rock bands – now considered classic acts and gradually being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even though to me the nineties feels like five minutes ago and hardly what I would call classic – I was discovering a new wave of female singer songwriters that were speaking to me far more directly and relevantly than the likes of Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Soundgarden were. I was barely even aware of those bands, fervently seeking out voices and lyrics and melodies that sounded mellifluous, that I wanted to sing harmony to while I was driving, and that I wanted to play on my radio program to prove that I wasn’t completely stuck in the seventies. Linda Ronstadt was making gorgeous albums in the nineties and Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart channelled their best work of that decade into their side project, The Lovemongers, but I was ready for new female music energy and along it came.
Sheryl was one of the first of that new wave with her 1993 Tuesday Night Music Club album and the eternally catchy “All I Wanna Do”; she was the everywoman who had an excellent music upbringing and apprenticeship to back up her success. Following Sheryl was the irresistible angst of Alanis Morissette; the wistful mother earth intensity of Natalie Merchant; the bluesy rock of Joan Osborne, the haunting refrains of Heather Nova; the fierce earnestness of Paula Cole; the wryly morbid minor keys of Fiona Apple; and the soaring sumptuousness of my favourite of the time, Scottish folk-pop songstress Eddi Reader. They are all still around, and this summer in Los Angeles not only do I get to see Sheryl, but also Natalie and Paula have shows coming up. (I could have seen Joan as well but she’s doing Dylan songs and I prefer to hear her sing her own.)
Last week I saw Sheryl two nights in a row, in an up close intimate Grammy Museum conversation and mini-concert, and then in full flight the following night at the Greek Theater.
I said at the beginning of this post that Sheryl has intrigued me. There is nothing complicated about her as an artist, at least on the surface. She’s a great good time rock chick; she’s an outstanding classically trained multi-instrumentalist; and she is a compelling songwriter. The intrigue for me is that I’d never found her voice to be particularly strong or deep – it’s kind of breathy and thin – and yet it is in fact strong because it never falters, and it’s a voice that works across all styles and has a great range, and she is often called in to pay tribute to other artists, recently singing in memory of Glenn Frey at last year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and then in respect to James Taylor at the Kennedy Center Honors. After her huge success with Tuesday Night Music Club she released a self-titled album that was harder-edged and I was bemused by her styling on the cover and wondered why she wanted to change her image so dramatically, but the music was still great. After a similarly heavy The Globe Sessions she came back in the new millennium with a trilogy of albums that were easier on my ears, the poppy C’mon, C’mon, the heart wrenching Wildflower and her post-breakup (from Lance Armstrong) album, Detours.
Those three albums made me fall quite deeply in love with Sheryl, and especially the Wildflower album, which she wrote much of while hanging out on the Tour de France circuit with Armstrong while supposedly deeply in love and content, and yet the songs are sad and searching and yearning. And so beautiful. The title track is perfection. The ballad “Always On Your Side” is one of my all-time favourite songs by any artist (I love the album version, not the duet she released as a single with Sting). And thank goodness there is a DVD of her performing the songs from this album, as from what I can tell she doesn’t play any of it in concert now. Maybe it reminds her of a time she doesn’t want to be reminded of, maybe she doesn’t like the songs any more or maybe she loves them too much. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t so happy with the production on Wildflower, as I recall her saying when she released Detours. True, her voice sounded thin and the production had a lot of air in it, maybe more than necessary, but the songs were absolutely stunning. If I ever had an opportunity to interview her about her songwriting, I would want to know about her relationship to those songs then and now. And beg her to add two or three of them to her current set list. Or just sing them for me.
A few more albums later she’s released the new one, Be Myself, a mature version of her earlier style and the song “Halfway There” a nod to the joyous vibe of “All I Wanna Do” with a more message-driven intent. (See the new video of it here – it’s great.) I got the album upon release, played it once and then let it sit. And then when I saw her perform twice last week the songs came to life and now I can’t stop playing the album. That voice that I said doesn’t sound particularly strong to me is actually much stronger in concert than how I hear it on record, and she is a terrific live performer, loves being on stage with her band and loves engaging with the audience.
I waited a long time before I first got to see Sheryl in concert; it was 2013 at the Greek Theatre and she was sharing the bill with country star Gary Allan, on the back of her Nashville country album Feels Like Home. She was great but I was disappointed about the absence of Wildflower songs and a shorter stage time because of that double bill. Now in 2017 she is all about the new album and its messages about riding (or rollerskating) through the troubles of the world, the alienation of technology, the nostalgia for easier times, while with two adopted sons it’s also about life choices in the present and future. It’s about being comfortable with yourself as per the album’s title, and something about Sheryl that I do love is how comfortable she is in her own skin and how despite the personal dramas of her life – the Armstrong breakup and other relationship heartbreaks and breast cancer – she remains so positive and optimistic and energetic. Singing about lost loves and soul searching was never going to be on her agenda this time, and I was prepared.
At her Grammy Museum evening she spoke at length about the themes of the new album, about her co-writer, producer and best music friend Jeff Trott, about raising her sons and staying true to herself, gracefully ageing (she is incredibly beautiful and slim and youthful at 55) and getting through these extraordinarily challenging times. She talked about her next album, a duets project she has been working on for some time that will include some of her heroes and friends such as Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Stevie Nicks, Vince Gill and Don Henley, saying it should be out early next year. I can’t wait. She then brought her entire band on stage to perform eight songs, four from the new album, and four past hits that she obviously identifies with most strongly – “Every Day Is A Winding Road”, “My Favorite Mistake”, “If It Makes You Happy” and “I Shall Believe”.
The following night at the Greek Theatre her opening act was Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas, who told us that Sheryl has been a long time family friend (that’s another thing about Sheryl the everywoman, she is everyone’s friend; I just wish she was mine!), and he got a rousing reception from the crowd that was only trickling in when he began. Sheryl and her band played 20 songs, six from the new album, “Halfway There” the absolute standout.The rest were spread across most of her other albums – nothing of course from Wildflower or Detours – with a couple of covers thrown in (“The First Cut Is The Deepest” and “Midnight Rider”).
Upon arrival at the Greek Theater I was told that “the artist” had specified there was to be no photography, not from phones or pocket cameras, and I had never had that restriction at the Greek before so I was antsy, given that taking photos is part of the joy for me. (Yeah, I know, be in the moment, blah blah blah. Being in the moment for me involves capturing shots of what I am seeing, I have done it since I was 13 on 110mm cameras and whenever possible I will continue to do it.) Sheryl, bless her, made an announcement after her two opening songs. She addressed the vigilant security force, saying something along the lines of, “You know, folks just love to get out their little phone cameras and take pictures, and you lovely security people are never going to be able to stop them, so why not just leave them alone? All they wanna do is have some fun.” Something like that. Anyway, out came the phones (and my camera) and she sang the song, and we all had a brilliant time.
And apart from her voice being so much clearer and stronger in concert, what really impressed me is her deftness with instrumentation, hopping from acoustic guitar to electric rhythm guitar to bass (never was there a hotter bass guitar playing woman since Suzi Quatro) to keyboard to mouth harp.
Sheryl is laid-back and informal but innately stylish. She rocks the sparkly pants and tank top, and her lustrous hair bounces around like a shampoo commercial. But aside from her looks and her playing, she is a proud songwriter presenting articulate, thoughtful and melodically joyful songs to the world and playing them in an unfussy but precise way with a great band. She’s humble but confident. She is a great role model for middle-aged women, single mothers, cancer survivors, all of that. Mostly she is a really consummate musician and songwriter who works really hard and keeps delivering her best. I was looking forward to these shows for a long time and am truly grateful to have been at them both.
As a sidenote, the Grammy Museum’s program of conversations with Grammy-winning artists is one of the truly fabulous things about living in Los Angeles. I’ve seen a few of them in recent years, including John Prine, Sturgill Simpson, Rodney Crowell and John Fogerty. Along with the talks put on by Live Talks LA and the free concert series from Levitt Pavilion, as well as shows at tiny venues like McCabes Guitar Shop and the legendary Troubadour, there are so many opportunities to see iconic music artists up close. Which is why I am here and not back in Australia. In case you were wondering.