She’s the voice of a thousand dentist’s offices, the definition of “adult contemporary” and possibly the furthest thing from jazz that’s ever headlined the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival.
Nevertheless, Sheryl Crow, toting a new soul-tinged album, 100 Miles From Memphis, could easily have been poised last night to win over a new crowd. She hired the tremendous guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for her touring band. In interviews, she spoke of influences like Curtis Mayfield, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Her show was even sponsored not by the local adult contemporary station 100.1-FM KZST, who have played Crow’s innocuous hit songs every day for ten years, but by the Americana station 95.9-FM KRSH.
But Sheryl Crow is no Aretha. In a set frontloaded with material from 100 Miles From Memphis, Crow demonstrated last night that no matter what accoutrements an ungifted artist dons, the essence remains flat. She struggled to imbue her vocals with soul and wavered on poorly executed harmonies, even on standbys like “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” She played a variety of instruments, from a vintage Wurlitzer organ to an accordion to guitar, but her watered-down material dictated that her immensely talented band play at one-tenth of their ability.
It was enough to suggest to even the open-minded that the singer, who gave away free Tom’s toothpaste samples at the festival gate and hawked her cookbook at the merch stand, isn’t so much an artist as a brand; a lifestyle choice of the culturally trepidatious; a meeting area where nothing happens. “Sweet Rosalyn,” a song Crow said was inspired by a strip club in New Orleans, was free of sweat, gyration or danger. A political song, “Redemption Day”—introduced with some combination of the words “Bosnia,” “Rwanda” and “Hilary Clinton”—came off as obligatory at best.
Crow’s banter was playful (“Thank God the world didn’t end today,” Crow said, acknowledging the supposed May 21 Rapture, “I’m so happy, I had a few things planned”) and her fanbase stayed seated and largely calm until the block of hits at the end. That’s when drunken air-guitaring and booty-shaking ensued in a celebration of Bermuda shirts, cosmetic surgery and arrhythmic dancing to guaranteed pleasers “Steve McQueen,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Every Day Is A Winding Road,” “Soak Up the Sun” and “All I Wanna Do.”
The set closed with a barn-burning “I Shall Believe,” which allowed the band to finally unlock its potential, but it didn’t cleanse the off taste of the night. It’s one thing to book a non-jazz artist at a jazz festival, but it’s another thing to book an affront to the creative process. “We had a great day here. We want to move here,” Crow said at one point, unconvincingly. “We want to only play jazz festivals from now on.”
If that were truly the case—if she really wanted to immerse herself in jazz—then Sheryl Crow would have a mountain of research and miles of catching up to do. Instead, she’s touring this summer with Kid Rock. Enough said.