When Sheryl Crow walks into this intimate Camden venue, there's a moment's frisson at seeing such American movie-star beauty close up. But the sweaty excitement she must have hoped for by returning to club-size venues is icily absent. No one seems particularly pleased to be here. Instead, Crow has to chivvy and guilt-trip the crowd into reacting at all. She must wonder why she bothered; and if the problem is them, or her.
When I first heard "All I Wanna Do" in 1993, I thought Crow was some hip young black LA woman, commenting on the passing scene with a writer's eye and easy Californian groove. I wouldn't have guessed she was a then-30-year-old ex-music teacher from a flyspeck Missouri town, and the song's spare vignettes were by an equally obscure poet, Wyn Cooper. She speeds through it tonight as a bored obligation. Songs from her new album, 100 Miles from Memphis, dominate the set. The lyrics are uniformly hazy and generic, though the title track has the old pop sleekness. When she sings that she's "stuck inside of this border town... on the other side of the tracks," she might be thinking of a career that has shuffled into neutral. Maybe that's why she's in this club, trying to remember what she had.
Her band are excellent, and when Crow settles back to play keyboards, she seems happily part of them, not a showboating star. Lead guitarist Doyle Bramhall II plays quick, sultry, imaginative blues riffs, and the horn players and backing singers who have been squeezed on stage give swagger to the country-soul sound. They essay loping reggae on "Eye to Eye", and near disco on "Roses and Moonlight". But they never find the answers Crow may have looked for here. The songs themselves are a slog. And her once joyous talent stays locked in the past.