Friday, May 30, 2008

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow put out a record called "Detours" a few months back, but don't be fooled: The disc is her most affecting in a decade, less a detour than a return to the course of her first three albums, which paid increasing artistic dividends and solidified Crow's rep as a rootsy hitmaker with substance.

But it was one of her more frivolous successes -- 2002's "Soak Up the Sun" -- that finally budged the crowd from their seats at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Wednesday night, 90 minutes into the hardworking multi-Grammy-winner's set. The moment seemed to sum up a willing-if-workmanlike show that drew the lion's share of its 20 songs from "Detours," but lacked the intimacy that Crow's best records manage to communicate even when she's surrounded by studio pros.

Crow, 46, in fine voice and looking fit, went for the bold open, playing three new songs ("God Bless This Mess," "Shine Over Babylon," "Love Is Free") before tapping her well of '90s hits. Most proved sturdy enough to survive the labor surplus of her eight-piece band, which swelled the intimate "Strong Enough" to distended proportions and smothered the raw quality that makes "If It Makes You Happy" sound like the best Lucinda Williams song Lucinda Williams never wrote. The set's least embroidered performances ("Detours," "Drunk With the Thought of You") were among its best.

Crow made a centerpiece of the confused protest anthem "Gasoline," which seems intended to spread the green gospel but feels like something from a "Mad Max" flick. Inviting us to "dream about a time when we're not oppressed by $4-a-gallon gas," Crow segued into the tense Stones' classic "Gimme Shelter." Then came "Real Gone" -- a carefree rocker from the "Cars" soundtrack, the star announced. File under: "Messages, mixed."

-- Chris Klimek

Kathleen Grace

During her opening set at Blues Alley on Wednesday night, vocalist Kathleen Grace confessed that she wasn't quite sure how to describe the music she performs -- and often composes -- though anyone who detected hints of Tom Waits and Wayne Shorter was on the right track.

Grace, however, wears her influences lightly. She may be drawn to Waits's curiously unfolding scenarios and fitful rhythms, and she's clearly fond of elliptical, Shorter-like ballads. Yet Wednesday's performance suggested that Grace's role models, who include Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and Nancy Wilson, have only encouraged her to find her own way. She has a lovely voice -- a lithe, ethereal soprano -- and both the rhythmic and harmonic assurance to scat with finesse and to negotiate hairpin turns.

Grace spent part of her show providing listeners with a sneak peek at her new seven-track release "Mirror," casting a dreamy spell with the self-penned title cut and infusing Newman's "Let Me Go" with the requisite bluesy ennui. "The Furies," an original tune that Grace described as mix of Shakespeare, personal angst and the Peggy Lee hit "Fever," was particularly enjoyable, at once smart, alluring and evocative. The singer also drew tunes from her earlier album "Songbird," most notably a bright, scat-laced rendition of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." Prominently featuring pianist Matt Politano, Grace's nimble trio moved back and forth between impressionistic and swing settings. Unfortunately, guitarist Perry Smith, who has made significant contributions to Grace's recordings, wasn't on the bill.

-- Mike Joyce

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