Crow's feat

Sheryl Crow

Birmingham National Indoor Arena

It was all a little languorous, sluggish even. Then, as Mike Higgins witnessed, the audience took a hand and kick-started the singer into action.

"Hello Birm-ing-ham," drawls the petite black leather cowgirl. 3,500 Brummies return the greeting with their best Grand Ole Opry House cheer, spurring the 35-year-old ex-teacher, , into - no, not music - some Q&A.

"Does anyone here believe in angels?" she wonders abstractedly, before enquiring after our faith in UFOs and Elvis Presley. As theological dialogue, it's kindergarten stuff, but given the lumpen doggedness of most of the show, it does beg one nagging question: "Does anyone believe in ?"

Pop music, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In the world of 90s showbiz, where personalities expand to fill the media space available, seems to have a slow puncture. Since her first hit, the breezy guitar chugger "All I Wanna Do" went supernova back in early 1995, never more than now has Crow seemed to want the relative anonymity of the Tuesday Night Music Club, the communal jamming sessions that gave her first album its folksy name. The covers of her eight million selling debut and its eponymously titled follow-up (four million and counting) tell their own story: from the honest-to-goodness typography and all-American girl that adorns Tuesday Night Music Club to the kidnap note lettering and sepia introvert that sits uncomfortably on .

Over that time Crow's personal happiness seems to have been in inverse proportion to her career success. This is, of course, a rock-and-roll truism as is her antagonism towards the music press: early media probing busied itself with the bitter fallout of the first album's complex joint writing credits and her alleged fling with Eric Clapton last year. It was, nevertheless, startlingly frank of Crow to admit in recent publicity to being lonelier now than she's ever been. Compare that then with her recent frantic mugging: , Tommy Hilfiger girl; , National Lottery Show celeb; , James Bond diva. Quite what audience she feels she's reaching by associating herself with WASP preppies Mr Blobby and Shirley Bassey is anyone's guess.

If there is reason behind Crow's gruelling but muddleheaded networking schedule, "Factory Girl", the song which the Crow and her band take first to the stage every night provides dim illumination. The Rolling Stones' paean to toiling, downtrodden women both illustrates the canonical rock tastes of a songwriter imbued with the PR free ideals of the sixties and Crow's avowed belief in the "head down" work ethic.

Following her move to LA from the backwaters of Missouri in the eighties, Crow's years as a backing singer to the likes of Rod Stewart, Don Henley and Michael Jackson provided Tuesday Night Music Club with its bleak vision, particular its derision of the music industry. By far Crow's most upbeat track, in fact, "All I Wanna Do" lightened its melancholic lyric with irresistible guitar hooks, in the process drawing ears from "What Can I Do For You's" portrait of music executive sleazeballs and the plaintive stoicism of "We Do What We Can'' and its dead end jazz player. As if to make it unequivocal, Crow's 1996 album shed the vestiges of its predecessor's crispness and indulged Crow's eye for frazzled low-lifers.

It comes as no surprise then that the languorous on stage tonight seems to be living the "Eat sleep lie die record label" life she once declared was too high a price to pay for stardom. Sluggishly alternating between guitar, keyboards, mouth organ and accordion, Crow thoroughly bemuses an enthusiastic audience by ploughing through her second album on auto. It's hard to tell who's being more encouraging though, the thirtysomething men who've come to bathe in Crow's laid back charms or the nieces they've brought as a handy pretext.

Then, halfway through "Everyday is a Winding Road", Sheryl's well-behaved Birmingham fans do something quite extraordinary. In a trickle at first and soon in their hundreds, those sitting at the back of the National Indoor Arena politely sweep past the protesting stewards and make their way into the stalls. With enigmatic timing and the uncanny presence of Stepford fans, this surge forward - undertaken rather as an appeal, it seems, than in support of their heroine - finally kickstarts the evening. Crow gives her band a sideways glance but has the grace to put some fire into what remains of her performance. "All I Wanna Do" is impressively resurrected as southern boogie and Crow rides home triumphantly with the country gospel of "I Shall Believe", a brief snatch of The Who and a promising tight new rocker, "It Don't Hurt".

A change would do her better.