Major League Baseball knows how to throw a party. The MLB shock troops descended on St. Louis this week in a blaze of red, white and blue, all in preparation for this week's All-Star Game. And while the game itself is reason enough to cheer (especially if, God willing, the National League can pull off a victory), the attendant parties, festivals and events have turned downtown St. Louis into Baseball City, U.S.A.
Last night's free charity concert (not an oxymoron, apparently) by Sheryl Crow was one of the weekend's most visible events, and it was pitch-perfect. Crow, a Kennett, Missouri native and three-year cancer survivor, is an apt spokeswoman for Stand Up To Cancer (the evening's charity) as well as a great draw for a St. Louis celebration.
Instead of using the already-erected Live on the Levee stage several hundred feet east of the Arch (which will be used for next week's Sonic Youth and Little Feat concerts), the organizers built a stage at the top of the Arch steps. It was a good move: watching a hometown hero perform directly underneath the city's visual calling-card gave the concert a special, one-off feel.
A muggy, hazy July day that threatened rain became a mild, clear and breezy evening on the riverfront. The last traces of daylight lingered as Crow and her band took the stage promptly at 8 p.m., kicking off with "A Change Will Do You Good." Bedecked in tight jeans, a sleeveless black top and a big acoustic guitar, Crow didn't need to do much to win over the crowd. Her radio hits - and there are many - are catchy and wise, and last night's performance was a reminder that Sheryl Crow has few peers that match her in talent, consistency and popularity. Crow doesn't do a lot to sell her songs when she's on stage, but she doesn't need to. Her voice never falters, and her songs ring out with sharp, well-worded nuggets of truth.
After a string of solid singles - including the wonderful "Leaving Las Vegas," complete with ad-libbed references to St. Louis, and the fragile "Strong Enough" - Crow introduced the evening's all-star, Elvis Costello. In a lot of ways, Costello was an odd choice to fill the "special guest" spot: as an Englishman, he has no real claim to a celebration of baseball. As a performer, he has no obvious ties to Crow (save their appearance together on 30 Rock's "Kidney Now!" spoof). And while some Costello faithful (ahem) would have liked to see him perform an opening set, his appearance gave fire and flash to the middle of Crow's set.
Ever the fashion plate, Costello looked dapper in a dark suit, purple hat, and brown-tinted shades. After trading verses with Crow on "The First Cut is the Deepest," the band kicked into Costello's "Pump It Up." No one can accuse Costello of mellowing out in his old age; he's still a spitfire on the mic, and he sang the 31-year-old song with noticeable traces of fury and indignation. After a so-so duet with Crow on her "Hard to Make a Stand" (Costello didn't seem 100% on the lyrics), he ended his mini-set with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," complete with an impassioned reprise.
After Costello left the stage, it was back to business. The fan-favorites were stacked toward the end of the set: "Favorite Mistake" got bodies swaying, and "Soak Up the Sun" became a sing-along. It was her album tracks, however, that showed her depths as a singer and songwriter. "Out of Our Heads," from 2008's Detours, was heartfelt in its vocal delivery and playful in its instrumentation, with slight world-beat upticks and a percussion solo making it danceable. That vibe continued with the set-ending "Every Day Is a Winding Road."
Crow began the encore with "All I Wanna Do (Is Have Some Fun)," the first big single that introduced her to the world as a singer both playful and well-traveled, a persona that has served her well throughout her career. Costello came back on stage for a set-closing cover of Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA," a nice nod to St. Louis' own rock & roll all-star.
By all accounts (including the official set list furnished by MLB), that should have been the end of the set. But as patrons started filing out of the Arch grounds, the stage lights went up once more, and everyone (Costello included) bounded back onstage for a spot-on version of Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll." Crow took the vocals and lead guitarist Peter Stroud did his best Jimmy Page. Costello, for his part, alternately strummed his Telecaster and hoisted it like a trophy. He never seemed like much a Zeppelin fan, anyway.
And then - because we are in St. Louis, and it was a weekend in July - the fireworks began. And why not? Why not watch some wondrous, colorful explosions choreographed to a string of KSHE classics? Rock & roll, like professional baseball, is made up of equal parts talent and flash, and a little spectacle never hurt anyone.
"A Change Would Do You Good" "Love Is Free" "Leaving Las Vegas" "Strong Enough" "Can't Cry Anymore" "First Cut Is The Deepest" (with Elvis Costello) "Pump It Up" (with Elvis Costello) "Hard To Make A Stand" (with Elvis Costello) "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love And Understanding" (with Elvis Costello) "Favorite Mistake" "There Goes The Neighborhood" "Home" "If It Makes You Happy" "Out Of Our Heads" "Soak Up The Sun" "Every Day Is A Winding Road"
1st Encore: "All I Wanna Do (Is Have Some Fun)" "Back In The USA" (Chuck Berry cover, with Elvis Costello)
2nd Encore: "Rock & Roll" (Led Zeppelin cover, with Elvis Costello on guitar)