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"This is a nice little place," Sheryl Crow said Tuesday from the stage of the El Rey. "The last time I played here I turned 40. I'm living backwards: Now I'm 36."
In fact, Crow recently turned 46, and though her physical appearance might indeed support her down-scaled figure, the singer doesn't try to disguise her years on her latest album, "Detours," which came out last month.
The new set -- a reunion with Bill Bottrell, who produced her blockbuster 1993 debut, "Tuesday Night Music Club" -- finds Crow darkening the cheery worldview typified in hits such as "Soak Up the Sun" and "All I Wanna Do"; the songs grapple with the war in Iraq, Crow's battle with breast cancer and the dissolution of her engagement to cyclist Lance Armstrong. Though it's full of the catchy choruses radio demands, "Detours" sounds like an album from someone eager to prove she's got more to say than the Top 40 pop tarts half her age.
At the El Rey, Crow and her crafty eight-piece band loaded their 100-minute set with selections from "Detours," including "Shine Over Babylon," during which the singer wondered, "If there is a god where is he now," and "Diamond Ring," a raw lament for lost love. Crow invited Ben Harper onstage for an insistent version of "Gasoline" that morphed cleverly into a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."
Yet for all the well intentioned gravity she brought to the new stuff, Crow never seemed as convincing Tuesday as when she performed her older material. "Leaving Las Vegas" rode a funky roots-music groove. "My Favorite Mistake" burned slowly and featured one of Crow's sexiest vocals. "If It Makes You Happy" throbbed with feeling (even if Crow had a bit of trouble hitting the high notes).
After encoring with "Soak Up the Sun," "All I Wanna Do" and Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes," Crow asked the crowd if she could play one more; she had a special dedication she wanted to make, to her percussionist, Wally Ingram, whom Crow said had been declared disease-free that day following extended treatment for throat and neck cancer. Given the go-ahead, the band then ripped through Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" with an abandon that seemed teenaged in nature -- a clear demonstration that Crow's reverse-aging scheme might be working.