After doing some informal market research before a recent Sheryl Crow concert at Oneida Casino in Green Bay, I concluded that the 40something singer/songwriter has plenty of good career times ahead. Why? Because her audience is comprised mostly of two loyal and financially well-off demographic groups: Middle-aged white men and young white women.
The bald-guy-and-mullet crowd only go to three concerts a year, this one being the third after The Eagles and Paul McCartney. They feel obligated by their omni-present mid-life crises to dig something relatively new, and Crow fits the bill because she plays “real” music with guitars, drums and words you can understand. And there’s none of that rap or metal crap. The do-rag donnas, on the other hand, like Crow because there’s an unwritten law that women of a certain disposition have to like female singer/songwriters. See, they prove that girls can rock just like boys can! This group also hangs in clusters of five or six, and they often will ask you to take their picture while they huddle arm-in-arm in a semi-circle because they are going to be friends forever and it is so awesome to be here seeing a strong woman like Sheryl!
Being neither a middle-aged white man or a young white woman, I have trouble pinpointing a single discernable emotion I have about Crow’s music. Ever since she first became a radio fixture in the mid-‘90s with her rip-off of the song that plays in the background of the ear-splicing scene in Reservoir Dogs her music has been both ubiquitous and disposable, like Will and Grace and Garfield comics. Deep down you might like a song or two of Crow’s (I cop to having a soft spot for “If It Makes You Happy” myself), but there’s not enough to go with those well-coiffed curls and deal-with-a-devil body to justify either long-term love or hatred.
Alas, this was not the show to change my opinion, or lack thereof. Not too long after she sauntered on stage to the sound of squealing tires, an aural allusion to the supercool namesake of her opening song and current radio product “Steve McQueen”, the air was slowly sucked out of the already stuffy and crowded casino pavilion. “Steve McQueen”, like her other recent radio hit “Soak Up the Sun”, finds Crow finally abandoning the small amount of rock cred she earned with her first two albums in favor of ‘70s-style feel-good mellowness personified by her good buddy and former boss Don Henley. It appears that her slide down the slippery slope of Mild Mountain has turned into a freefall. After “Steve McQueen” Crow quickly retreated to her golden oldies, which she has a surprisingly good supply of. I say surprisingly because I didn’t expect to know as many songs as I did. I totally forgot the likes of “Strong Enough”, “My Favorite Mistake”, “You Don’t Bring Me Everything But Down”, and “Leaving Las Vegas”, all songs that I must have heard a million trillion times when they were big but now have virtually no staying power on radio aside from the station you hear at the doctor’s office.
Usually even the slickest music gets some fire and grit live in concert. That wasn’t the case here. The appealing Keith Richards strut of “My Favorite Mistake” was missing because the guitars were turned down way too low. Ditto for “Everyday is a Winding Road”, which sounded a tad clean to justify a line like, “I’ve been living on coffee and nicotine.” “Soak Up the Sun” just, well, sucked; it’s faux Beach Boys-isms aspire to “Kokomo” instead of “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”. Crow seemed to be having a good time on stage, but her performance was clearly phoned in from some sunny beach far, far away. She rose to the occasion only toward the end of her 90-minute performance, when she locked into the Stonesy opening riff of “If It Makes You Happy”. This mid-tempo churner from her second album has the usual canned cynicism Crow likes to pass off as wisdom, but the heavy guitars make it go down nice for once and the chorus is still a knockout. Fun covers of The Who’s “Can’t Explain” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” followed, showing that Crow is capable of a pulse if she puts in the effort. But hey, when the status quo gets you a plum gig on “Big Brother 3”, who needs a pulse?
I hate to say this, but I have no memory of any song from show opener Michelle Branch’s set. All I wrote in my notes was “Cute butt, OK songs.” I know she’s the anti-Britney, and she’s a brunette and she plays guitar, but Branch has a powerful sexual allure no matter how hard she might try to hide it. Her tight black jeans and undershirt did to me what Lisa Bonet’s awful, Peter Frampton-covering folk singer did to Jack Black and John Cusack in High Fidelity. While her music didn’t come close to touching me, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. If we met in a bar, I would instantly want to ask her out. If she said yes, my No. 1 dream in life would become a mention in her liner notes. Male groupie, thy name is mine.