Be Myself, the title of Sheryl Crow’s latest album, says it all. After flirting with soul and classic country on her last two outings, 100 Miles From Memphis and Feels Like Home, she’s gone back to her roots, embracing the sound that first made her a household name. The decision to be herself once more was clearly personal, as lyrics like “Hanging with the hipsters is a lot of hard work” make abundantly clear. But there’s the added benefit of the new material slipping seamlessly into a live show that, from the get go, leans on her first three star-making LPs.
A euphoric Everyday Is A Winding Road and hip-shaking A Change Would Do You Good, both from her self-titled 1996 offering, kick off the Friday night celebration. Led by a buoyant Crow, who twirls and bounds across the Shepherd’s Bush Empire stage, the two-hour-plus party is only just beginning. “Do you remember this?” she teases while smiling her way through a playful rendition of breakout hit All I Want To Do, before leaping into an energised take on 1998’s My Favorite Mistake, dancing at the drums during the rootsy Wurlitzer solo and joining in on keyboards as band leader Peter Stroud lets loose on his guitar.
With the crowd well and truly warmed up, and welcomed with a heartfelt “I love this room and everyone in it”, Crow halts the run of hits with a batch of new songs “about myself and the world around me”, she offers. The bouncy, self-affirming Be Myself, despite referencing Uber and selfies, wouldn’t sound out of place on her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club, while she bills the invigorated, extended version of Long Way Back Home as part two of Everyday Is A Winding Road.
An exuberant Alone In The Dark, which pairs despairing thoughts with a bright melody, segues perfectly into 1994’s Can’t Cry Anymore and her beloved, sugar-free cover of the Cat Stevens confection The First Cut Is The Deepest.
The most visceral of her new tracks, the menacing and prescient Heartbeat Away, references a red-faced man with his finger hovering over the button as the six musicians on stage soundtrack the end of days, and is the perfect setup for a pile-driving There Goes The Neighbourhood.
The darkness lifts with a dynamic reimagination of the hope-filled Leaving Las Vegas, which began all of this by “storming the charts to 58”, and another “blast from the past”, Strong Enough. Equally uplifting are the final batch of fresh tunes, the swinging Rest Of Me (inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul), the unstoppably uptempo Roller Skate (which sets Crow’s love/hate relationship with her phone to the best guitar riff of her career), and the highly anticipated bluesy vamp Halfway There.
The Nashville-flavoured Best Of Times, from her previous LP, continues this brief detour into other genres while driving home the talents of musicians who’ve backed everyone from Dixie Chicks to Noel Gallagher. With Crow leading the charge on harmonica, lead guitarist Stroud, laidback drummer Fred Eltringham, falsetto-voiced bassist Robert Kearns, lap steel virtuoso Josh Grange, and keyboard wiz Mike Rowe launch into a thrilling extended jam that the singer fittingly describes as “good clean fun”.
Their effortless dynamic is all the more impressive considering that, for this short UK tour, Rowe has returned to the fold after years away, while Grange has become a multi-instrumentalist and, if a joking Crow is to be believed, her tailor.
Off-the-cuff comments like these (not to mention her terrible attempt at an English accent, witty response to a punter’s declaration of love, and incorrectly introducing the same song, twice) give the evening’s festivities a relaxed, comfortable vibe. There’s no pretence here, just Crow being herself. And, as she wraps up this night of revelry, it’s bleedingly obvious that’s exactly what the audience want.
So a dreamier, less grunged-up makeover of If It Makes You Happy climaxes in a mass singalong as the Shepherds Bush Empire is bathed in light, while a muscular Soak Up The Sun prompts the audience to respond with such enthusiasm that the usually chatty Crow can only respond with a sincere “We love you so much.”
That love overflows during the encore, an emotional double-act from her debut LP. The elegant Run, Baby, Run, characterised tonight by the warmth of Grange’s lap steel and Kearns’ backing vocals, sounds even more powerful than it did 24 years ago. And the late-night-in-a-smoky-1950s-club rendition of I Shall Believe, which Crow begins at her centre-stage microphone before spontaneously deciding to perform from the keyboard instead, sees her keeping it real to the very end.
Live review of Sheryl Crow @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire by Nils van der Linden on 19th May 2017. Photography by Kalpesh Patel.
Nils runs fantastic music blog Graffiti. Punctuated
Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate