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Returning to the limelight, Cole is as striking as ever

Paula Cole performed her first headlining concert in seven years on the stage of her alma mater, the Berklee Performance Center. (DAVID KAMERMAN/GLOBE STAFF)

Whatever transpired during what Paula Cole half-jokingly called her "mid-life crisis" hasn't diminished her formidable talents.

In fact, it makes sense that living a little more of life -- record label struggles, childbirth, marriage, and divorce -- has not only made the Rockport native's still-striking visage a little fuller but her music as well.

Friday night, in her first headlining concert in seven years, Cole took to the stage of her alma mater at the Berklee Performance Center, visibly nervous but determined to stake her claim as a new and improved artist and woman -- and she succeeded without reservation.

It no doubt helped that there were many friends and family in the crowd, including her daughter, but Cole seemed to draw strength from herself, her exceptional backing quartet -- especially pianist Laila Biali -- and the songs themselves, both the familiar and the half dozen from her forthcoming album "Courage," due in June.

As the two-hour show progressed from a contemplative piano rendition of "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" to guns-blazing rocker "Throwing Stones" to the fizzy bossa nova of the new "Hard to Be Soft," Cole's confidence and power blossomed. Whether she was seated for a sensual run through the standard "My One and Only Love" or bouncing around as she brought back her signature beat-box-enhanced rendition of Dolly Parton's pleading "Jolene," her increasing comfort level translated into stronger wails and more vulnerable whispers.

In between songs she talked about her time out of the limelight, her identity crisis, and the things she has wondered about , including if anyone might cover one of her songs one day. Beaming, she revealed that two of her idols -- Annie Lennox and Herbie Hancock -- are recording "Hush, Hush, Hush" and then sang the aching lullaby, seemingly saying goodnight to her angst-ridden self. Cole returned for her encore, which included the lilting confusion of "Carmen," the WB-powered hit "I Don't Want to Wait," and a starkly beautiful piano and voice version of "I Am So Ordinary," in a hubba - hubba red ball gown that confirmed her return to equilibrium in appropriately bright and optimistic fashion.

Welcome back, Paula.

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