Sheryl Crow certainly has had her share of ups and downs in the past three years. Her much-talked-about engagement to famed racing cyclist Lance Armstrong dissolved; she was treated for breast cancer; and she adopted a baby boy named Wyatt.
The pop-rock star also found herself in a well-publicized confrontation with Karl Rove last year at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. She wanted to know about the administration's response to global warming. Rove coldly dismissed her.
All of these events - particularly the showdown with the then-deputy chief of staff to President Bush - inform the lyrics of Detours, Crow's latest album, released in February.
During her show Wednesday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, the eight-time Grammy winner dipped heavily into the politically charged lyrics of the new album, which also happens to be one of her best efforts.
"It's the detours that bring you back to yourself," the rock-pop superstar told the packed pavilion. The lyrical focus of the new songs may be serious, but they never plummet into didacticism. Buoyed by the groove-rich, freewheeling music of her solid eight-piece band, Crow, 46, sounded fully charged.
She looked great, too, dressed like a chic cowgirl in fitted jeans, stylish almond-brown boots and a knee-length black jacket.
Crow kicked off the nearly two-hour set with "God Bless This Mess," the pensive, folkish number that also opens Detours. She sang the short tune with just an acoustic guitar before the black curtain behind her lifted, revealing the band atop three neon-lit platforms.
The song pleading for peace gave way to the vibrant, slightly bluesy "Shine Over Babylon," another key number from the new album. That segued perfectly into the current single, "Love is Free," which the band invigorated with a heavier, more muscular groove than what's on the album.
Crow kept things well-paced, interspersing the set with her past radio smashes, including "Leaving Las Vegas," "A Change Would Do You Good" and "My Favorite Mistake." But the setlist was dominated by songs from Detours, on which Crow sounds freer and more assured than she did on her last album, 2005's formless Wildflower.
The artist's evolved, imaginative songwriting is probably best captured in "Gasoline," a hard rocker with a joyous, topical chorus: "Gasoline will be free!" During her performance of the song, Crow and her two background singers interpolated "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones. Given that "Gasoline" recalls the band's soulful '70s era, it worked well.
Throughout the show, Crow carefully balanced the pointedly political tunes with the carefree numbers. For instance, "Out of Our Heads," a song that advocates open-heartedness over cold analysis regarding world issues, gave way to "Soak Up the Sun," Crow's catchiest, most mindless hit.
The house was on its feet by this time, dancing in the aisles and on the lawn. Not wanting to kill the party vibe, Crow continued rocking out with "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and her 1994 Grammy-winning smash, "All I Wanna Do."
But she apparently wanted to leave the same way she came in: on a sharp political note, tinged with a sense of hope. Only this time, Crow plucked a tune from Stevie Wonder's songbook: the uplifting 1973 classic "Higher Ground."