Black Music Matters Festival

Rodney Crowell is at the top of his game

The Viper Room, West Hollywood, Cal., Oct. 14, 2003

By Dan MacIntosh

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - After spotting his daughters in the audience, Rodney Crowell took this opportunity to explain how he would always make sure to have Bob Dylan blaring from the car stereo whenever he drove these girls to school. This was undeniable evidence, he claimed, that he'd raised his children right.

So when Crowell performed a call-and-response version of Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" toward the end of his show, it was a little like singing along with Rodney in his car. Yet, it was just as much fun to sing along with Crowell on his own songs during a set drawn primarily from this acclaimed singer/songwriter's two most recent releases, "The Houston Kid" and "Fate's Right Hand." Crowell is writing some of the best songs of his distinguished career these days, so it made perfect sense to celebrate this creative resurgence before a packed Sunset Strip crowd.

The heart-stopping highlight of the night arrived when Crowell performed "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Wondering Boy" (both from "The Houston Kid") back to back. These songs deal unflinchingly with how drug abuse and wayward ways adversely affect individuals and families.

"I Wish It Would Rain" empathetically portrays the trials and tribulations of an AIDS-infected drug addict, who turns to gay prostitution to support his habit. It's certainly not the kind of brutally honest story-in-song heard everyday on country radio, but it ought to be. Its insightful lyricism only serves to point out how Crowell is just not your everyday variety artist; he's truly something special.

Elsewhere, "Telephone Road" and "Topsy Turvy" waxed autobiographical, while "Still Learning How To Fly" and "The Man in Me" found Crowell coming face-to-face with his own individual shortcomings.

Tonight's show was more than just a series of serious songs, however, as Crowell also took plenty of opportunities to have a little fun. He revved it up on his own "I Ain't Livin' Long Like This," got soulful with a cover of The Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself" and went rockabilly for "Flip, Flop and Fly." His guitarist, Will Kimbrough, added plenty of hot licks to Crowell's sound whenever the music heated up.

There's nothing better than watching an artist at the top of his game and such was clearly the case tonight with Rodney Crowell.