An ambitious stage set and a well-designed, impeccably executed light show carried the weight for much of Sheryl Crow’s polished yet emotionally uninvolving opening night concert. Crow subjected her admirably crafted material to heavy, nuance-free renditions throughout her nearly two-hour show; when the overworked “All I Wanna Do,” a song that saturated the U.S. five years ago, comes across as a breath of fresh air, comparatively speaking, the artist is in trouble.Crow’s recording career has moved along an impressive trajectory, each disc an unqualified, ambitiously artistic success capable of fulfilling commercial expectations. Released six months ago, “The Globe Sessions” — the million-selling A&M disc from which much of the concert material was drawn — finds Crow balancing her established sensitivity with a developing toughness. In concert, however, that toughness became dense and unappealing by the end of the first hour — guitarist Peter Stroud employed cliched riffs, the sweetness brought in by cellist Matt Brubeck and violinist Lorenza Ponce turned harsh and sour, and Crow lifted her voice to a screech, all of which put the brakes on the momentum generated in the show’s earliest moments. Fortunately, it started well. Sultry and a bit cocky, Crow wasted no time getting to her invigorating and catchy “My Favorite Mistake”: it was her second number, with the three walls behind her a delightful triptych of silent films, still images and floating, cloud-like bursts of color. Ambient lighting and bouncing spotlights added energy and provided a distinct visual for each number. Crow, staying front and center, alternated between guitar and bass; on the latter instrument, she has given herself a real job and truly blossomed, playing punchy and effective lines with uncommon meatiness. As a guitarist, though, she sticks to basic strumming and striking poses. (She has a real fondness for holding the instrument on her lap as she squats during the hard rock tunes, proving, once again, that you can take the guitarist out of the heartland but…) It’s curious that Crow, accomplished on so many levels and seemingly without compromise, sells only her best-known material to the audience. “If It Makes You Happy” was delivered with an impressive swagger that would’ve made Keith Richards proud; “Strong Enough,” the first encore, was played hushed and with delicate care; “Leaving Las Vegas,” placed between two grinding numbers, showed how well she can work off a standard, beat-driven track. Early in her career, her concerts seemed split between the songs she appeared to really care about and those she regarded with indifference. She hasn’t changed. Despite her signaling early on that a rowdy evening was in store, the audience was willing to go the distance with her. (The occasional blind-the-audience lighting was to blame for some of it). A little loosening up and taking cues from the audience — staples of the singer-songwriter tradition — could go a long way toward raising Crow’s concerts to a level on par with her albums. Eagle Eye Cherry opened the evening with a spry set that closed with his former top 10 hit “Save Tonight.”
Pantages Theater; 2,869 seats; $35 top
Presented by Nederlander. Opened and reviewed April 2, 1999; closed April 4.
Band: Sheryl Crow, Peter Stroud, Mike Rowe, Jim Bogios, Tim Smith, Matt Brubeck, Lorenza Ponce.