He just released "The Outsider" on Sony. And while Crowell, 55, may play the role of a musical outsider vis-à-vis Nashville, he knows a thing or two about putting on a concert as he demonstrated before a crowded house.
Crowell concentrated on his last three albums, starting off with pretty fast-paced songs in "Earthbound" and the catchy "Topsy Turvy" with its strong lyrics from "Fate's Right Hand" and "The Houston Kid" respectively.
Crowell quickly threw in "Sex and Gasoline," a brand new song in the works, the third song in. That could be asking a lot of an audience probably barely familiar with "The Outsider," let alone an unrecorded song. He introduced the song as being about girls and self-image "You'll love me once you figure out I'm on your side," Crowell joked.
The long song rocked thanks in part to some meaty guitar playing from sideman Will Kimbrough.
Crowell grew political with social commentary on "The Obscenity Prayer" where he sings of greed: "I can search for truth some other time/But right now I just want to get what's mine." Not exactly a light, easy going love song, and that about summed up Crowell's musical bent these days.
If looking for a country sound, that wasn't all that evident as Crowell tended to rock more often than not. And he did so quite well with songs from "The Outsider" like "Say You Love" Me" and "Don't Get Me Started."
He was helped by a strong backing band, particularly guitarists Jedd Hughes, a young Aussie with one album under his belt on Universal, and Kimbrough. These guys really know how to play and power the songs along without overdoing it or needing to go into histrionics. Both serve Crowell quite well.
While "The Outsider" has a great cover of Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm" with Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, Crowell paid his tribute to Dylan with "Like a Rolling Stone' in concert. The crowd capably provided the closing words to the lines.
If fans were expecting to hear "I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried" or "She's Crazy for Leavin'" from during his peak of commercial popularity in 1988, they would have been disappointed. In fact, it was too bad that Crowell didn't play any of his older hits because doing so could have provided at least a few more anchors to the 105-minute show.
Crowell closed with the country rocker "Ain't Livin' Long Like This" from his 1978 debut album before ending the evening with a very soft, acoustic-based "I Know Love Is All I Need."
But that well could be because he feels like his recent music matters. And, in fact, it does despite the high unlikelihood of country radio picking up on his music.
Crowell was preceded by a short joint set from Hughes and Kimbrough. Hughes demonstrated what a great, young unheralded guitarist he is and a good vocalist to boot. He turned in a heartfelt reading of Hal Ketchum's "Past the Point of Rescue." With the right set of songs, Hughes' career ought to be on the upswing where he is not a sideman, but the main attraction.
Kimbrough opted for a more uptempo and urgency to his sound and also turned in some strong playing on bluesy flavored songs.