Modest Intent

A few years back, an odd little story (or perhaps a rumor) began circulating about the Connells. As the tale went, the group had just finished a show at some Maryland dump, and its members had spread out inside the emptying club to hang out with friends from the audience. A half-hour later, with the gear packed and the vans warming up, lead singer Doug MacMillan was nowhere to be found. A thorough scouring of the club's booths and restrooms turned up no one, so it was on to the parking lot. There, in a car, was MacMillan, loopy from a bit too much post-gig imbibing, drawing designs on a female fan's face with a black marker and giggling like a school boy.

That was one version of the event; another had a drunken MacMillan trying to force himself on said fan. Me, I prefer the cleaner telling of the story, as it neatly sums up the career of this smart, modestly innovative band from Raleigh, North Carolina. Formed in 1984 by brothers Mike and David Connell, the Connells relish the freedom to indulge in such childlike antics, and they crave the close connection with their listeners that makes such antics acceptable. And after six releases and only one lineup change in the last decade (the 1996 addition of keyboardist Steve Potak), they still have those things in spades.

Although many bands that sell moderately well and play before modest crowds claim to prefer life outside the fast lane, the Connells have gone a step further: The group has been proactive about maintaining such an existence. They've remained with the independent TVT Records when they could have moved to a major label, and while they make videos, they feel more comfortable relying on live performances. Through that, the Connells have built a loyal, if less than huge, fan base that's especially strong east of the Mississippi.

All jangly guitars, complex melodies, treacly hooks and mild Southern Gothic antiquity, the Connells have often been compared to R.E.M., though they've never enjoyed a commercial breakthrough of "Stand"-size proportions. Nor did anyone think they cared to until, following the release of 1993's Ring, the Connells hinted they might disband if the CD's magnificent single, "74-75," didn't become a hit. Ring was the third CD to follow the band's masterstroke, Boylan Heights, and the third disc TVT had promised would expose the Connells to a wider audience. And indeed, it was vintage Connells -- delicate, propulsive, well-crafted -- which only confirmed the suspicions of some that the only sin the group has ever been guilty of is sounding too much like themselves.

Though "74-75" failed to do much in the U.S., it went Top 20 in Europe, giving the Connells their excuse to stay together. Last year, they rejoiced in their new commercial vitality with the dense, dark, somewhat grungy Weird Food and Devastation, the strangest Connells effort to date. It hasn't produced any hits yet, though, which means the band is back on the road trying to drum up support. Professed non-showmen, the Connells are, nevertheless, a politely engaging live spectacle, with Mike Connell doling out winks and smiles of encouragement to the rest of the band like a proud father. And on a good night, MacMillan can be a monumental ham. Just watch out for the marker.

-- Hobart Rowland

The Connells perform at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, February 1, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tonic opens. Tickets are $7. For info, call 869-COOL.

Sheryl Crow -- Sheryl Crow earned a ton of teenybopper fans -- and almost as many skeptics -- when she appeared out of nowhere in 1995 with Tuesday Night Music Club and its mammoth single, "All I Wanna Do." Turned out that all she wanted to do was what Cyndi Lauper had long ago said all girls just wanna do, and the news that the lyrics had been bought from some anonymous New England poet branded her a lightweight in some critics' eyes. Maybe that's why the Crow you hear on her latest CD is so eager to take credit for herself. Here, she's written a sizable chunk of the material and can be found variously playing bass, guitar, piano, harmonium and organs. Credit where credit's due: She's sown a filler-less field full of pop songs (13 of them, no less) that's more than a match for her overhandled debut. She's still bound too tightly to bouncy, feel-good rhythms to be taken seriously, but then, Crow never claimed to be taking rock and pop anywhere new. She's always rocked with authority live, and on this tour, all reports indicate that she's in full control with her latest, glam-gal persona and an increasing command of the stage. And as for being good at what pop-rock has already done -- well, little miss Morissette is gonna have to make one hell of a second CD if she wants to push Crow aside and re-proclaim herself Queen of the Hill. At the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 2. The Wallflowers open. Tickets are $23.50. 629-3700. (Brad Tyer