SHERYL CROW with Holly McNarland at the Air Canada Centre, August 30. Tickets: $59.50-$69.50. Attendance: 3,500. Rating: NN
Take a quirky, jagged-around-the-edges singer -- not conventionally pretty, but with loads of unique charm. Throw 'er in the big-ticket bin, shake it up a bit and the machine spits out shiny, same-old, same-old pop nuggets. Once upon a time Holly McNarland was a spiky-haired and pierced tough chick who cut to the quick with seething tunes like Mr. Five Minutes, howling like a banshee about an unsatisfying lover man. Her guitars had fangs and her voice was a kick in the ribs, wailing through well-warped melodies with thrashy punkish undertones.
These days, McNarland's dropped the underground Alanis rage for sappy Jann Arden-style keening. Maybe motherhood's mellowed her. She even dresses like a bland Gap girl, and her powerful pipes go to waste cooing less crunchy, more conformist pop-rock tunes. Even older numbers -- the plaintive Stormy and the angry surge of Elmo -- lost their immediacy during Friday night's show, despite a hearty dose of thudding drums and heavy guitar feedback.
It's not entirely McNarland's fault -- singing in the Air Canada Centre is like playing piano in a Campbell's Soup can. The acoustics in that culvert of a building are abysmal, and the band suffered for it. The notes blended together in a muddy, guitar-heavy fuzz, and the burbling bass all but drowned out McNarland's lyrics and melody.
Sheryl Crow used to come off as a world-weary broad who'd seen her share of bars. (She slept with Eric Clapton! She lived the hard-rock life in Michael Jackson's band!) Now, with her Tommy Hilfiger make-over, Crow's the very picture of the all-American girl, helping soccer moms and Porsche-driving business dudes rock out in the most non-threatening way. Instead of grit, she drips gold dust.
Nobody could argue that she doesn't know her stuff. Crow's band is preternaturally solid. Their note-perfect, super-produced versions of the swaggering, staticky Steve McQueen and snarly-guitar stadium rocker You're An Original were album-quality accurate.
Crow tried to mix things up a bit with older songs, adding countrified slide guitars to a twangy Strong Enough and hippie-dippy bongos to Every Day Is A Winding Road and showing off her musical chops on bass, guitar and piano.
Offset by a massive screen with song-cued film clips (Grand Theft Auto-style race cars on Every Day; red, white and blue neon lights spelling out You're An Original), Crow played pep-rally cheerleader throughout. She got the well-heeled yuppie crowd on their feet, singing and clapping along.
But the entire show had the disconcerting feel of a well-oiled machine. Crow's so sincere that she's insincere, playing up her down-home roots with an exaggerated drawl. By the time she reached her encore, dancing on her piano after unsettling projections of war zones and abuse during weeper Safe And Sound, the too-polished sheen was blinding.
I'd rather have a good beer buzz early in the morning.