Sheryl Crow has decided a change back would do her good. After a flirtation with the country market four years ago, she’s reverted to full-on rocker form for a spring album release and summer amphitheater tour, both of which she previewed at a filled-to-the-gills Troubadour show Thursday night (March 2). She may be maintaining her literal home in Nashville, but expat or not, 24 years after her last gig at the Santa Monica Blvd. club, her sun seems to still be coming over that street, musically speaking.
The eight new songs premiered from the forthcoming Be Myself mostly sounded like they could have come off albums 1-4. The intimate setting allowed a few hundred attendees to verify that Crow also looks like she just popped off one of the covers of those first few albums. Maturing becomes her, but so does pogoing, which she did at length in the lead-up to “Soak Up the Sun.” Noticing that the audience was not responding in kind, she exhorted: “Okay, I’m 55 f—ing years old! Start jumping!” Some did and some didn’t, since not everyone has spent the last quarter-century doing the Sheryl Crow/Dorian Gray Workout.
It wasn’t clear ahead of time whether this rare club show would be a truncated one, just debuting some of the new material, or serve as a full preview of what she’ll be doing in outdoor venues this summer. It was the latter, aT least to the extent that wearing a women’s small Mickey Mouse T-shirt counts as the “dress” in “dress rehearsal.” Obviously Crow never stopped rocking out on stage, even during her courting-country phase, but what’s striking about the Be Myself material is how much it’s Crow being herself circa 1996, and how comfortably the high-octane tunes fit into a set inevitably anchored around the 10 songs that collectively come from Tuesday Night Music Club and its self-titled successor.
Crow has two ace lead guitarists in her band, as she has for years — Peter Stroud and Audley Freed — and they both get a lot to do on the new songs, many of which start with an introductory electronic beat (the one sop to 21st century morays) and then immediately lead into the kind of guitar riff that is a staple of the material she co-writes with longtime collaborator Jeff Trott. Crow herself spent the requisite amount of time playing acoustic or electric guitar, but what stood out were the amount of new songs that had her playing a very beefy bass. In 2017, she’s gonna soak up the subwoofers.
A quick glimpse of the new material sprinkled throughout the two-hour-and-15-minute show:
“Be Myself” — The feel-good title track is an ode to being “terminally normal,” since “hanging with the hipsters is a lot of hard work.” Not unlike Taylor Swift’s mention of an “indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” Crow doesn’t have much time for the du jour, singing that she “took an Uber to hear a new indie band play/They got 99 million followers in only one day.”
“Long Way Back” — The most brooding, slow-building new song is about life’s “mighty big toll,” with what may or may not be an autobiographical detail: “Did you ever see a man have a heart attack/It’ll open your eyes and stop you in your tracks/So I threw away my last cigarette…”
“Grow Up” — “When Prince died, that sort of took the wind out of my sails,” Crow said in introducing this song, which was inspired by a sense of “how fleeting” life is, and “all the people you lose contact with, and why didn’t I reach out.” It would be a stretch to say the sing-song-y chorus of this bass-driven, mid-tempo song sounds Prince-inspired, but when it gets to the bridge, it’s unmistakably Wendy & Lisa-like. Lyrical tag line: “Even when I’m old, I don’t ever wanna grow up.”
“Alone in the Dark” — Introduced by Crow as being “about social media,” the album opener begins: “I told you to be discreet/But you went to the world and you broadcast me.”
“Heartbeat Away” — A song that seems to be about Donald Trump, but wasn’t, at least originally. Crow said it was written before Trump ever got the nomination, as “a song of espionage. Russia was not even in the picture, so how this song even got made, I don’t know” — disavowing any prophetic knowledge in the lyrics’ references to hackers, leaks, vast fortunes, and a “man with the red face/With his finger on the button as he hums ‘Amazing Grace.’”
“Rest of Me” — Ironically, it took Crow quitting country music to come up with this much of a country beat. But, with its fast acoustic strumming and McCartney-esque melody, this ode to guarding one’s heart is really more in the vein of the Beatles doing country, or country-folk, a la “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
“Roller Skate” — “This next song really is my commentary on social media. I know I said that before, but this one really is,” Crow said, introducing a song about the “buzzkill” of texting and snapping. It was inspired by her two sons complaining about her usage, not vice versa: “They’ll say, ‘Mom, put your phone down.’ I’m very cognizant of not having it on all the time.” Sample lines: “I kind of like that human touch/Old-school contact, would it be too much.”
“Halfway There” — “This election for me was just a big, fat bummer,” she announced, to no one’s surprise. “I felt like America was losing its plot, with our inability to talk to each other.” This song’s theme: let’s chat. Crow just put out this plea to converse across cultural and political divides as a single. In one sense, it sounds radio-ready — but maybe that’s 1996-rock-radio-ready; Crow has acknowledged that she doesn’t have any big hopes for major radio play in the current radio climate, which maybe is why she can put out a single that, catchy as it is, takes the risk of a time signature change between the verses and choruses.
One song from Be Myself (due out April 21) that disappointingly wasn’t played Thursday was the album-closing “Woo Woo,” a charming excursion into actual contemporary R&B (as opposed to the retro-R&B of her 100 Miles From Memphis album). But maybe Crow felt it would be confusing to a live audience to spring an outlier like that on them in the midst of emphasizing that she’s returning to her early-career rock roots.
What the Troubadour crowd (which included pal John Mayer) really didn’t get much of, perhaps understandably, was the four stylistically diverse studio albums that came out between 2002’s C’Mon, C’Mon and now. That entire 15-year period of genre experimenting was represented in the set list by just one choice, “Best of Times,” from her sole Warner Nashville album, 2013’s Feels Like Home.
That lone holdover from her country-radio phase sounded less “country” than ever, anyway, as she added a long harmonica coda that seemed like an extensive homage to Mick Jagger’s way with a mouth harp on the Stones’ nightly versions of “Midnight Rambler.” Then again, Jagger never apologizes to the front row after a harmonica solo by saying, “It’s a snotfest over here. Sorry for all of you who got snot over here.” Given the rarity of Crow playing a 500-person venue, fans were likely to take any stray mucus as a happy-making souvenir.
“Everyday Is a Winding Road”
“A Change Would Do You Good”
“All I Wanna Do”
“Long Way Back”
“Alone in the Dark”
“Can’t Cry Anymore”
“There Goes the Neighborhood”
“Leaving Las Vegas”
“Rest of Me”
“Best of Times”
“Picture”/”If It Makes You Happy”
“Soak Up the Sun”
“Run Baby Run”
“I Shall Believe”