Etheridge is happy without sappiness


March 27, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Women, the core of Melissa Etheridge's fan base, dominated the 9:30 Club on Thursday night, seemingly enraptured by the rock star's upbeat sound and attitude.

It was hard not to be.

Romance - the newness of it, the joys and little epiphanies - was celebrated in the music without any trace of sappiness or pretension. This coming from an artist whose bread-and-butter for years was angst-ridden songs about loneliness and deep yearning for freedom and happiness. After a painful break-up with longtime partner Julie Cypher, Etheridge has reemerged a more focused woman. And this new clarity has improved her art, making it more accessible and buoyant.

At 42, Etheridge is in a happy, committed relationship with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels. (The two exchanged vows in a lavish Malibu ceremony in September.) The singer-songwriter's new album, Lucky, her first release since the 2001 torment-and-tears Skin CD, is a reflection of the bliss Etheridge feels these days.

And Thursday night, with her solid three-man band behind her, she stuck mostly to the high-octane material from the new record. No down-tempo numbers. No somberly reflective tunes. As couples cuddled, danced, hugged and kissed, it seemed the sunny break in the artist's dark musical clouds was welcomed. The euphoria and balance in Etheridge's personal life haven't diminished what's truly appealing about her music: the earthiness. The vocal intensity she brings to her simple lyrics and melodies sell her songs well. Only she can lift such lines as "I'm all right/I'm all right/It only hurts when I breathe" out of pop mediocrity.

Armed with her guitar (which a stage hand changed every other song), Etheridge strutted out on stage under giant dice, a powder-blue Saturn and a neon Lucky logo from the album cover. The props evoked the antique pinball-machine motif from the CD artwork as the music crackled with energy.

The drummer started "If You Want To," the concert opener, with a driving, syncopated beat as Etheridge and the second guitarist fell in with twangy lines. Then the bass dropped in, the drummer kicked up the beat and the heat was on, never really letting up during the hour and a half Etheridge commanded the stage. "Lucky" benefited from a stronger groove than the studio version.

The blues and folk influences that swam through the singer-musician's early material have been tempered over the years with more pop sensibilities. But those early shades bubbled through the autobiographical "When You Find the One," the last cut on Lucky. Missing from the live take was the charming accordion line that floats through the album version.

"You like to walk down the dark, shadowy side of love street, don't you?" Etheridge asked the house before jumping into the bombastic "I Want to Come Over" from 1995's lackluster Your Little Secret. Why Etheridge threw this tired tune in, only she knows. She sang it about four minutes longer than she should have. It was the only song of the night in which her vocals slipped into rock cliche: sing the verse low and pseudo-sexy then explode on the chorus. The house didn't seem to feel the tune much, either.

But as Etheridge wailed "Come to My Window," the smash from the monster-seller Yes I Am, the packed house was with her. During the hook, a sea of women held their hands in the air - eyes closed, hips swaying.

You couldn't help but feel the love.

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