Pop / Sheryl Crow, Hammersmith Apollo, London

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The Independent Culture
For a boho bird singing songs of freedom and rebellion, Sheryl Crow has driven herself hard of late. Not weird, like, say, Tori Amos, and not too glam, like, say, Aimee Mann, this literate Missouri troubadour delivers Carveresque tales of blue-collar anguish, disappointment and hope - a kind of distaff Springsteen or Mellencamp, sheathing the sad stuff in a velvet of funky, country-tinged R&B with an edge.

Singles had peeled steadily from her debut LP Tuesday Night Music Club (worldwide sales of six million and counting) before the summertime vignette "All I Wanna Do" took off like something from mission control. But Tuesday Night appeared about three years ago, and Sheryl has toured that baby nonstop.

She and her band have covered the globe and, on the evidence of tonight's performance, it looks like they did it on foot. In a gig remarkable for its enervation and lack of atmosphere, you could tell from the opener, a weary rendition of the usually matchless "Leaving Las Vegas", that here was a band toured to death. In velvet jeans and leather jacket, and flanked by five goateed young musos, Crow girded her loins and barrelled through a set with which she is evidently too familiar.

"I understand this is the new single - so we'll play," she grumbled, launching appropriately into "Can't Cry Anymore". It was painful to watch. She seemed too tired to smile, the band too tired to even lift their heads; definitive shoe-gazers. The sense of resignation communicated to the crowd, and Sheryl bounced it back with a half-joke of explanation: "So my record's been out about eight years. I've had 12 kids, and I've still kept my girlish figure."

New numbers were few, and probably not done justice. After recounting this week's awkward TV chat with Lily Savage ("The only time I forgot the lyrics to my own song") she launched into "Miss Creation", bass-heavy, punctuated with a good deal of yodelling, a warm tribute to a transvestite clearly written before she met the comic. There was an ironic take on Led Zeppelin's reggaefied "D'Yer Mak'er", but it was only when the lights went down and Crow announced an "unplugged" session that anything came near to working. The voice that had been shrill and straining at the top of its register eased into a loose scat on "All I Wanna Do", ominous tom- toms remaking the track as dark beat poetry.

It was followed by "Strong Enough", a woman's deceptively casual plea that her lover should understand her, and for a moment everything fell into place, the air of weary disillusion suiting the lyric, and Crow's accordion the perfect foil for a voice briefly back on form, strong, honeyed and unbearably poignant. Only on the wind-up, "I Feel Happy", did she really look less than pained. Evincing huge relief, Crow played out with the sombre ballad "No One Said It Would Be Easy".