DRENCHED in sweat, Melissa Etheridge stretched out her arms and tilted her head back. With a smile on her face, she took a step back from the microphone after the end of one song and paused on stage for a moment: It was evident she was taking it all in - from the crowds' cheers to the unavoidable weather factor.
In the sweltering heat, Etheridge performed for 2-1/2 hours to a crowd of 16,400 outside Boston. Her husky, thunderous voice - a cross between Tina Turner and Janis Joplin - along with her powerful guitar rhythms, captivated her audience.
Etheridge has a close connection to Boston because she lived here for a couple of years and attended the Berklee College of Music for two semesters in the late 1970s. "I was 19, and I remember when I could afford an apartment on now trendy Newbury Street. How many 19-year-olds do you know who can afford that now?" she said with a chuckle. "It's changed."
Ah, yes, how times have changed for the Leavenworth, Kan., native. Just a short time ago, she was unknown nationwide. Now Etheridge can be seen just about everywhere. The singer has appeared on MTV's "Unplugged" (with Bruce Springsteen) and performed at Woodstock II. Last year's "Yes I Am" album is Etheridge's fourth release, and it is still producing hit singles. Her latest is "If I Only Wanted To."
The singer managed to turn the packed Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts into an amicable and inviting spot - especially when she left center stage and moved to a platform in the middle of the pavilion for a few songs.
She performed all but one song from her recent quadruple-platinum album, and several others from past albums, such as "Similar Features" and "I Used To Love to Dance." Since her debut album in 1988, Etheridge has really grown as a singer in both lyrics and style: Some of her earlier songs have a pop-rhythm sound, whereas her new album sounds more raw-edged in songs such as "Ruins" and "If I Wanted to."
She has created a niche for herself by singing straight-from-the-heartland music and, in turn, has won a massive following. She even belted out an AC/DC tune, "You Shook Me All Night Long," which sounded amazingly like the original version.
Her debut album, "Melissa Etheridge," earned the singer her first Grammy nomination, and in 1992 she won a Best Female Rock Performance Grammy for the single "Ain't It Heavy," off the album "Never Enough."
Etheridge extended many of her songs in concert with her own guitar solos as well as those by members of her band. Songs such as "I'm the Only One" went on for 15 minutes. Every verse and yelp was enough to create hysteria among audience members.
Before leaving the stage for the night, Etheridge said the words softly, "Be safe." She then crossed her arms and put them over her heart, as if to say, "Thank you from the bottom of my heart."