Carlock: Sheryl Crow and Uncle Kracker at Hard Rock

Published 10:41 am Friday, September 14, 2012

The shrimp were the hugest things I’ve ever put in my mouth — seriously. That was my first impression of the Grand Opening/Guitar Smash celebration at the Hard Rock Cafe at the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo.

After watching six Fender guitars get smashed by hard-hatted company reps and luminaries Sheryl Crow and Uncle Kracker, the evening kicked into full gear with an hour-plus set from Uncle Kracker and his band on the restaurant’s stage. The band opened with a cover of the John Anderson song “Swingin,” to which I refused to admit being familiar with when asked. Uncle Kracker put on a solid set with his six-piece band. Their singles sounded like their singles, which they should, and the band was tight in all of its hybrid Southern/pop/rock mellowosity.

Being the grand opening, it’s fair to say the room design was one of the night’s stars as well. Every aspect of the design of the space is geared toward the club’s live performances. A sunken dance floor makes the dancers look up to a sizable raised stage, which is side bordered by tables raised another level on left and right sides and a long drink rail that looks down on the dance floor from the rear.

Turning to look for a server from my spot at that drink rail, I noticed a subtle genius in the function-dictated form in the center ramp’s slight diagonal, which ensured continuous line of sight for another drink rail paralleling the ramp’s edge on the level of the further-raised center bar. With such an attention to customer experience in the design downstairs, it was no surprise to find the upstairs balcony with zero sight-line obstructions in the stage view. What a rarity to find a bar and restaurant where the experience is clearly centered around the music presentation.

As the set concluded, I noted the staff was helpful and followed up on my questions. This was impressive. Staff training seems to be on the money, which is always a challenge. I felt at home here, what with the servers having weirder hair than me, fishnets, tattoos, piercings and — wait for it, wait for it — an apparently great attitude and work ethic. Wow.

After gaining my bearings, I got a text from my friend, Danish, complaining she was bored. There are four good things about Danish: one, she knows how to answer her phone; two, she’s just as spontaneous as me; three, she can look hot with five minutes notice; and four, she can get in a car immediately when I call her. These general survival assets always pay off. Thirty minutes later, she’s holding my plus-1 ticket to Sheryl Crow; getting straight-up Grey Goosed; hanging with members of Uncle Kracker’s band; and most of all, getting blown away by the size of the shrimp. I wasn’t kidding about that.

Running through the casino to catch the show, we slide into our seats with lights down just as Sheryl Crow opens with “Steve McQueen.” With a “woo-hoo” hook reminiscent of Steve Miller’s “Take The Money & Run,” I’ve always thought it was one of her best singles. What came next was a great set of hit songs played masterfully by her great six-piece band.

Styled in what I’d call “Western shirt-chic” and playing retro instruments, the music and the look of the band were well matched. Vintage Ludwig drums, Gibson and Epiphone guitars and Wurlitzer electric pianos and Hammond B3 adorned the stage while contributing to the vibe in sound and aesthetic. I was really pleased to see lead guitarist Peter Stroud was onstage, his ultra-tasty slide playing being a huge part of Crow’s sound. Crow’s boyfriend, Doyle Bramhall II, also played excellent second-guitar and mandolin through the night.

Crow made a hilarious gaffe when she told the New Buffalo crowd how much she loved Illinois and was glad to be back. When someone onstage corrected her, she said, “Where are we? Oh we’re in Michigan! You know, in the tour bus, we have no idea where we are at any given moment. (long pause) Well, you know what, I love Michigan! And I’ve never really liked Illinois!”

Near the end of the show, I grabbed Danish and we made our way down the center section’s aisle to get a better view. Spying a mostly empty row, I navigated into fourth row center, followed Pied Piper-like by a few women who liked where I was going with all this. Chair surfing in the land of “excuse me do you have a ticket for that seat,” I visually upset the short security guy trapped behind the three-deep stage-edge crowd on stage right. The top of his head turning red as he kept trying to look above the crowd to get a bead on me forced me to go a bit more stealthy, but not before catching Peter Stroud’s eye and making him crack up as a contrast to the ultra cool demeanor he exuded throughout the evening.

As a huge treat, the last song of the encore was an incredible version of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” featuring, verbatim, the note-for-note musical parts created in the studio by my late friend and Ronstadt band member, multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold. Hearing Andrew honored again through his behind-the-scenes creation underscored to me the worth in the hours and hours that producers spend on arrangements. That effort does matter, because great work is remembered. What a perfectly personal touch to the end of an already incredible evening. Thanks to the Hard Rock Cafe, Uncle Kracker, Sheryl Crow for a great night, and thanks again Andrew for continued inspiration.

Dave Carlock is a 25-year veteran of the entertainment business whose work as a recording engineer and producer, touring musician, and songwriter made him Googleable. His continuing work as an Independent Content Creator of Sound and Image has earned him a Grammy Award certificate, two Platinum Record Awards, and a Paragon Award in advertising. Currently, he brings national and international artists to make records and music videos at his production studio in the Benton Harbor Arts District.