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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Pop

Hewing Closely to Classic Rock Grounds Crow

March 24, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

What is it about singers or bands with the name Crow or Crowes?

In her sold-out performance Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre, Sheryl Crow proved to be as much a prisoner of classic blues-rock elements from the '60s and '70s as the Counting Crows' Adam Duritz and the Black Crowes' Robinson brothers.

Though she exhibits more individuality and flair than either of them, she, too, has trouble establishing a gripping or original style.

Listening to her Saturday, in fact, made you feel you were on a journey through her musical past--sensing in Crow's own songs the joy of discovery she must have felt when she first heard some of the artists who helped shape her sound.

You could imagine the thrill of first coming across the the dazzling wordplay and social commentary of Bob Dylan as he crammed more ideas and words into a verse than had a right to be there. She tried the same thing Saturday in "The Na-Na Song," a tune she co-wrote that, alas, is about as deep as its title.

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You could also picture during the two-hour concert how she was captivated by the storytelling swagger of Ricki Lee Jones. Sure enough, Crow echoed it on "Leaving Las Vegas," from her hit 1994 album "Tuesday Night Music Club."

And there were other signature sounds--from the sassy blues-rock of the Rolling Stones to the sweet soul sway of Dusty Springfield.

To her credit, Crow has not settled in her new album, titled "Sheryl Crow," for simply repeating the skip-a-long charm of "All I Wanna Do," her biggest single from "Tuesday Night." There is a more serious edge to the new album's tales of romantic and social disillusionment.

The lyrics, however, are seldom revealing or sharp. "Everyday Is a Winding Road" offers the self-questioning of sophomore English essays. And "Redemption Day" is dangerously close to a Spy magazine Dylan parody: Come leaders, come you men of great / Let us hear you pontificate.

Yet Crow, the singer, and her five-piece band brought an intimacy and punch to "Redemption Day" that made it one of Saturday's highlights. Similarly, Crow sang the gospel-edged "I Shall Believe" with winning conviction.

The Grammy winner even held her own nicely on three numbers, most notably Lou Reed's winsome "Pale Blue Eyes," when she was joined during the encore by Emmylou Harris, one of the great singers in all of modern pop.

When her vocals connected, it was tempting to think Crow might be a more satisfying artist if she reached out more to other people's material.

But she undercut that theory by turning in a hopelessly conservative interpretation of the '60s soul gem "Do Right Woman--Do Right Man," and a witless take on the rowdy "Money (That's What I Want)."

Crow strikes you as someone who is more professional than passionate, a puzzling talent who stays within conventional boundaries. The question is whether she is unwilling to test her limits or, gulp, has already found them.

Even if you dismiss the derivative nature of her music, there are other artists today--from P.J. Harvey and Ani DiFranco to Courtney Love--who write similar subject matter with much more insight and daring.

The figure she most closely resembles today is Joan Osborne, someone else whose '60s-based music suffers from a lack of '90s imagination. Could her middle name be Crow?

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