ROCK; This one is born to run, and run

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BEFORE a backdrop of sagging drapes, like incompetently assembled tents, is a drummer with a vest stretched over his muscular torso. The lead guitarist on the left has a goatee beard and a glitter-patterned guitar; the bassist on the right is as anonymous as bassists tend to be. And in the middle is the raw-voiced, long-haired lead singer, wearing a denim shirt with "USA" stitched in big letters on the back. The band play skilful, anthemic rock, guaranteed to grab a Grammy. They could be a lustier, gutsier Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams. But the singer is not a good ole boy from Kansas, she's a good ole girl. What's more, she's a good ole girl who likes other good ole girls. Melissa Etheridge's 1993 album is called Yes I Am, which is a cheeky way of coming out of the closet; last year's follow-up had an equally eyebrow-raising title, Your Little Secret (Island).

Her first song at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday was her new single, "I Want to Come Over", which is simply Tina Turner's "The Best" with better lyrics. Elsewhere, she sounds like Bonnie Tyler singing Bonnie Raitt songs. But the most common comparison that she elicits is with Etheridge- fan Bruce Springsteen, not just because of her sound, but because of her romanticised reminiscences of small-town dreams and sexual awakenings. Tiresome and unconvincing as the subject matter can be in the rugged but sensitive hands of a white-bread rock dude, Etheridge's dreams were more confusing, her awakenings rather more rude. Were another singer to sing the line, "Believe in what you are, believe in what you feel", it would sound like the title of a New Age self-help manual. When a lesbian from the heart of Newt-ered America bawls it out, it's brave and political. Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi wish they were outlaws. Etheridge is an outlaw - in Kansas probably literally. "I Could Have Been You" is Shylock's speech with power chords: "I'm scared of growin' old/ I shiver when I'm cold/ Don't you think I bleed the same blood?/ I could've been you.''

But how many times can we hear rewrites of "Born to Run'' before we run out of patience? How many times does she have to repeat those big, obvious choruses? In true Bruce tradition, the songs were stretched to the length of the average concert, and the concert itself ... well, it's probably still going.

More enticing musically was Etheridge's support act, Kentucky rock chick Joan Osborne. Saddled with a name that evokes blandly worthy MOR folk, Osborne is actually one of the kooky crew that includes Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos and Sheryl Crow: she is the latest in a line of American pop stars who wear black nail-varnish.

Her single, a fuzzy, rootsy ballad called "One of Us" (Mercury), is in the US Top 10, and deserves similar success over here. As with all of the set's material, it's intriguing and lovely, but with more kick and bite than a bar brawl. Osborne herself had straggles of blonde hair, a ring in her nose, a wicked glint in her eye, and an edge to her singing, as if she were losing her voice even while it was at full power. Glorious.

On Thursday, King L (if you think about it, the name is actually a rather rude exclamation, the devils) played songs from their terrific debut album, Great Day for Gravity (Virgin). They were one of the acts at the HIP - the Holsten Indie Party - at the Hammersmith Palais. Sadly, they're not particularly indie or hip: they're not young or thin enough for that.

It was definitely a party, though, and King L were on at that point in the evening when the guests are too self-conscious to start mixing, and stand around counting the minutes until their friends arrive from the pub. In front of a crowd waiting for Pop Will Eat Itself to come on, it was no wonder that King L didn't look very comfortable, or that guitarist Neill MacColl didn't look well.

Time, then, to stop looking, and listen. Led by ex-Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark, King L sound like a Scottish band being duffed up by a Seattle grunge group: the generous lumps of melody and sincerity are knocked into shape by brutal guitars. But that would be to understate the variety of techniques and textures at their fingertips. Maybe it would be more correct to say that King L sound like Del Amitri would like to, but hardly ever do.

King L: Manchester Academy (0161 275 4815), tonight; Newcastle City Hall (0191 261 2606), Mon; Glasgow Barrowlands, (0141 552 4601), Tues.

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