Mixed Messages & All "Finesse® presents Sheryl Crow in concert." The billing at Sheryl Crow's Chicago House of Blues show played up her newfound identity. The once rootsy rocker was now a happy hair model. Wasn't it possible that the tormented songstress who sang "Leaving Las Vegas" would show up instead of the cheery shampoo spokeswoman? Well, Finesse did get top billing. I kept my fingers crossed nonetheless. It appeared that Sheryl Crow had suffered an identity crisis. Perhaps a "midlife crisis" would be more accurate. Over the course of her first three albums -- all excellent -- Crow had built a hard-earned reputation as a talented singer/songwriter with a natural, almost rootsy, sound and image. Presence over production. Her songs conquered the airwaves, and she didn't resort to playing up her looks. But then, perhaps threatened by the seemingly unstoppable world domination of teen pop, Sheryl changed. Her much-anticipated fourth album, this year's C'mon, C'mon, should have catapulted Crow from mere star to musician-icon. Instead, it catapulted her to the role of product spokeswoman. Delivered within the slickest, glossiest, most calculated pop-marketing package money could buy, C'mon, C'mon came complete with corporate sponsorships, television commercial tie-ins, a perfectly-timed VH-1 Behind the Music special, and a new California beach-babe image -- full-color bikini spread included with every CD! The talented, natural beauty from next door had returned with a makeover. And it reflected in her music. Less gritty, shinier songs. Less gritty, shinier hair (by Finesse). Suddenly Crow appeared to be at war with Britney Spears. "All our pop stars look like porn," Sheryl sang in "Steve McQueen", her opener at the House of Blues (and the opening track on her new album). She was waging the battle from the start. Yes, she looked like all the other pop stars out there -- belly shirt, tight leather pants, did I mention the hair? -- but it was hard to mistake this pop star for a porn tart. Crow can look however she damn pleases if she delivers the goods. And Crow's performance talents can't be hidden, even under Britney's make-up and hairspray. From song one, Crow came out with strong voice, laid back attitude, and loose arrangements that allowed her new tunes to escape their more contrived, recorded sound. The energetic outro jam to her opener made that apparent. Segueing immediately into "Everyday is a Winding Road", a mega-hit from her second album, Crow seemed completely at ease with her excellent band. She exuded confidence, laughed with the players, and looked like she was genuinely having fun. Again, an extended guitar-heavy jam punctuated the end of the song. She may write radio-pop, but when it came to performing on Thursday night, Crow was there to rock. Crow's set list was partial to material from her new album, with a lesser, but even mix of songs from her previous three. Her new tunes, "C'mon C'mon" and "You're an Original", were performed with more edge -- Peter Stroud's inspired lead guitar elevated the music all night -- giving them the necessary weight to exist in the same fighting-class with older songs. Her new album definitely sends a mixed message: She criticizes pop culture for churning out stars that look and sound as if they're from the same cotton candy machine, all the while glossing up her own music and image to fit right in. But to hear her musical commentary in a live context -- "You're an original, baby. Turn around and you're looking at a hundred more" -- well, there was no confusing Crow with the hundreds of others. I'd like to see Britney strap on a bass and lead a rock band through hit after hit. (I really would!) This was the Sheryl Crow I came to see. Crow switched between electric, acoustic, and bass guitar throughout the night as members of her versatile band deftly rotated to fill in the gaps. Sheryl's solid bass playing set a groovy foundation for Mike Rowe's fun organ explorations, launching "My Favorite Mistake" to a particular high. Gems from her past, such as "Home", "Strong Enough" (dedicated to "the man I haven't met yet"), "Leaving Las Vegas", and "The Difficult Kind" were poignant and satisfying. "I feel like I'm playing every bar I used to play. Home sweet home!" Crow declared before launching into "If It Makes You Happy". The intimate, sold out House of Blues was, in fact, a unique venue to catch Crow, especially on her own with no opening band (having most recently toured through Chicago as the headliner of a festival event). And Crow took every opportunity to work in standard bar band clichés: substituting "Chicago" for the named cities in "Leaving Las Vegas", working in references to the local Midway airport, including covers such as Steve Miller's "The Joker" and The Who's "Can't Explain", and even choosing Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" as her final encore. The covers exposed her roots and working past -- you don't get that relaxed on stage without years of paying your dues at bars. But frankly, she probably worked those tunes harder back in the day. Crow's laid-back stage persona, which sold the authenticity of her own material, only made the covers less genuine, even if they provided enjoyable glimpses into her past. Crow took a disappointing misstep when she introduced "new" material midway through her show. Building up the excitement by referring to the audience as "guinea pigs," while making excuses for what "could really suck," Crow energized the crowd with anticipation for brand new songs . . . only then to perform "Over You" and "Hole in My Pocket", two tracks from her latest album. These were not brand new songs that had been written in the hotel the night before. These were already at least a year old, perfected and produced on record. Is Crow so caught up in the marketing machine that she defines tunes as "new" if they haven't yet been played on the radio? These songs were "new" because they had not yet been performed live. They were, however, already sold on CD and currently in millions of homes. Not very "bar band" of her. And although she appeared honestly nervous as she and her band smiled and smirked through their performances, her setup was disingenuous and the result was disappointing. "We lived through it. We have been baptized in the spirit of experimentation," she exclaimed when finished. Hardly. When a piano was rolled out for her encore, Crow explained, "on a serious note" that she'd written the next song well before September 11 and that it had "become applicable" as "George Bush is failing to realize what's at hand." Unfortunately, the intimacy created by her statements and the solo piano intro to "Safe and Sound" (from C'mon, C'mon) became hampered by the introduction of a jarring drum-machine backing track. And although the chorus of "Safe and Sound" may make sense to a post-9/11 mindset, the outro refrain is just plain confusing. It's hard to believe, "Feel like I really loved you," which is repeated over and over, is the message she intended to direct at George Bush. More mixed messages from Sheryl Crow. Sheryl Crow's frustrations with the pop marketing machine may seem less genuine as she gets caught up in the machine herself. But those frustrations are still there, even if her message gets obscured along the way. If she continues to deliver energetic performances that display her many talents as a writer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist, then she's worth hearing, mixed messages and all. Rock and roll has always been about attitude, anyway. And great hair. I received my Sheryl Crow endorsed Finesse samples on the way out.