Parenthood hasn't mellowed Melissa Etheridge one bit.

Touring for the first time in four years--during which she and her partner, director Julie Cypher, had two children--Etheridge had no trouble revving up on full-throttle rockers like "Bring Me Some Water" and "I Want to Come Over"; the thunderous challenge of a scorned lover, "Like the Way I Do"; and "I'm the Only One," whose seismic shifts from strutting verse to swaggering chorus brought out the Janis Joplin in her. Too bad the projected Joplin biopic starring Etheridge didn't work out--she'd have done Janis justice.

Monday's concert at Constitution Hall was itself something of a career retrospective. Billed as "An Evening With . . . ," it did away with opening acts, allowing Etheridge an expansive forum to perform dollops of gutsy heartland rock alongside the acoustic rock featured in the show's middle portion. Though Etheridge's warmly husky delivery was a constant, the acoustic set was slightly preferable in terms of lyric clarity, while the rowdier material better showcased her earnest emotions.

The early part of the concert featured the empowerment anthem "If I Wanted To," a proudly cognizant "Mama, I'm Strange" and the jubilant invitation "Come to My Window." But it also showcased songs from Etheridge's new album, "Breakdown," exploring romantic vulnerability, often in the form of challenges to current and former lovers. She also added the scathing "Similar Features"; when Etheridge has an ex to grind, they stay ground.

Most of her material is personal, albeit political in the sense that she performs it as an openly gay artist. The two areas do meet in "Scarecrow," Etheridge's final encore and a song that in concert gained a resonance not quite matched on the recorded version. Addressing the murder of college student Matthew Shepard--beaten and left for dead last year because he was gay--"Scarecrow" took on even deeper meaning with Monday's opening of the trial of Aaron McKinney, one of two men charged with Shepard's murder.

Delivered over an electronica-edged loop and taut support from the band, the song imagines Shepard's final anguish, but looks to transform anger into a positive challenge to accept love. "I can forgive, but I will not forget," Etheridge chanted with an anthemic somberness. As band members left the stage one by one, Etheridge kept singing, finally solo but now supported by the audience, and the chorus turned into a mantra of social conscience.

Though further details and acts won't be announced until January, Etheridge is the first star to commit to Equality Rocks, an April 29 concert at RFK Stadium as part of the Human Rights Campaign, sponsor of the April 30 Millennium March on Washington, a civil rights demonstration focusing on issues affecting gay Americans.