Theater of the Clouds - Portland, Oregon (USA) - October 17, 2005 - 1

Sheryl Crow has been in the public eye a lot during the past couple of years, but not so much for the pop music career that made her famous. She's been showing up instead in sportscasts and gossip columns because she's been dating a guy who rides a bike.

That this fellow, Lance Armstrong, rides well enough to win the Tour de France a record seven times makes him an even bigger celebrity than his new fiancee. And the world -- or at least much of the United States -- loves little more than a celebrity relationship.

Crow, of course, understands this full well, and in her Monday night concert in the Rose Garden arena's Theater of the Clouds, she made teasing little allusions to this private matter of public interest.

"We haven't been around in a while," she said, a few songs into the two-hour show. "I've been going to bike races." Then she dedicated the song "Good Is Good" to her Blackberry, the modern communication marvel she said helped her get to know Armstrong in the first month after they met.

Later she introduced a song by saying that she used to dedicate it to all the single men in the audience or, really, all the single men she'd ever met. "But now . . .," she added, and let the inference hang for a moment before beginning "Strong Enough," a song whose hook, "Are you strong enough to be my man?," comes across as more plea than challenge.

Later still, Armstrong himself darted onstage to bring her a red Telecaster ("He's the most expensive guitar tech I've ever had," she joked), then again for a brief dance with the (other) star. By then the point was clear: Crow is happier these days.

Perhaps paradoxically, this love-inspired lightness of heart has freed her to be more serious in her music. And for Crow, that's a good thing. At times in recent years she has appeared unsure of her creative direction and uneasy about the demands of the competitive mainstream marketplace. But on her new album, "Wildflower," she's not worried about fitting into a radio format and instead delivers a steady dose of the thoughtful, richly textured ballads and midtempo pop that are her strongest suit.

That album's tone transferred nicely to Monday's show. Ruminative new songs such as "Wildflower," "Perfect Lie" and the George Harrison-like, subtly anti-war "Where Has All the Love Gone" ("Today I saw the flag roll by/on a wooden box") were gorgeous. An 11-piece string section, directed by David Campbell (dressed in tux tails and jeans), was brought for the new material but also added depth and color to such old favorites as "It Don't Hurt" and "If It Makes You Happy" and a striking, show-closing cover of Elton John's classic "Levon."

This was only the second show of Crow's first tour in a number of years, but she was as reliable a performer as ever, playing guitar, bass, piano, and singing with open-hearted assurance. She may have been away for a while, but for this star, getting back onstage is like riding a bike.

Marty Hughley: 503-221-8383;