With a little help

Jan 26, 2000 at 12:00 am

The reason why live albums exist is at times multidimensional. In the best-case scenario, a live recording is destined to capture an artist at the height of his or her powers. Say, James Brown Live at the Apollo, Kiss Alive I or even Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan. In other instances, a live record can signal the end of something, as in the case of the Band’s swan song, The Last Waltz. Another scenario still is the stop-gap concept – a live record which appears to be randomly thrown into the marketplace. This allows an artist some breathing room to work on new material while giving the label a relatively cost-effective way of generating profits (provided that there is a demand for such a recording). In the latter case (and for myriad reasons), these live offerings tend to sound sterile and artificial. Fortunately, Sheryl Crow and Friends Live from Central Park doesn’t quite fall into this category, although it sometimes comes close.

Live From Central Park is a self-documenting showpiece from a recent New York gig. On this evening, Crow played to an audience of 25,000 as part of the marketing wind-up for American Express’ new "blue card." Her set features a slew of high-profile guest artists including Eric Clapton, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks and others. The qualities of the performances run the gamut from good to very good. Like Crow’s music itself, they’re well-executed and to the point.

To give credit where it’s due, since her initial tour in support of her debut Tuesday Night Music Club, Crow has worked her abs off to become a better live performer. Hundreds of shows later she has really come into her own. Confident and engaging, she breathes new life into ditties such as "Everyday is a Winding Road" and "My Favorite Mistake." Of all the guest appearances, her duet with Chrissie Hynde on "If It Makes You Happy" is a barn burner. Hynde’s voice blends beautifully with Crow’s, making this a worthwhile collab. An umpteenth cover of Fleetwood Mac’s "Gold Dust Woman" (sung with Stevie Nicks) is a bit underwhelming, as is Eric Clapton’s anemic rendition of "White Room." Lacking much of their original vigor, these two songs tend to sound auto-pilotish. Keith Richards’ cookie-cutter version of "Happy" (preceded by Richards mumbling something about "it’s good to be anywhere") makes you yearn for the original or at least an X-Pensive Winos version. Let’s see what Crow comes up with next.