- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

Since Minnie Driver first bounded onto the Hollywood scene as the pleasantly plump Benny Hogan in the 1995 film “Circle of Friends,” she has tried on a bevy of roles for size — and despite their diversity, most have fit her just as well as her stunning red-carpet gowns.

Among the colorful character portrayals hanging in her closet: a forgiving Midwestern radio DJ (“Grosse Point Blank”), a brilliant British college student helping her genius boyfriend self-actualize (“Good Will Hunting”), a vampy girl-toy (NBC’s “Will & Grace”), an opera diva (“Phantom of the Opera”) and a former-meth-addict-turned-con-artist (FX’s “The Riches”).

These days, she has been spending a lot of time tinkering with yet a different part — one she has played many times before but never in front of such a large audience.

We’ll give you a clue: It involves a guitar, a microphone and a whole lot of driving. That’s right; Miss Driver has cast herself as a real-life musician and, as we would expect from the chameleon, she’s pretty darn convincing.

In her favor is the fact that she’s been prepping for a long time. Before her acting career took off, Miss Driver sang in London restaurants and was in a band signed to Island Records.

She clearly remembers her first gig.

“It was in a restaurant with a jazz combo,” she says. “I was 17.”

People focused more on their food than on her, then walked out in the middle of her act, their meals finished.

Where did Miss Driver foresee music taking her at that (perhaps very low) point?

“It was going to take me on the bus home; it was going to give me money to eat,” she says.

When movies started becoming more lucrative for her, the performer put music on the back burner, where, for the most part, it remained until a few years ago.

In 2004, she released her first full-length, “Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket,” a collection of mellow, original folk-pop tunes plus a cover of Bruce Springsteen (one of her musical idols). Last month, she returned with “Seastories.”

One of the disc’s best tracks is the first single, “Beloved,” a steamy country-tinged ode to a sweetheart that showcases Miss Driver’s smooth vocals and guest guitarist Ryan Adams’ fine instrumentation.

“All the songs that I write are inspired by people in my life,” Miss Driver says.

Oh yeah? Could this one be about one of her big-name beaus, maybe John Cusack, Matt Damon or Harrison Ford?

If it is, she’s not saying. It’s her policy.

The actress-musician is aware that some people may initially be turned onto her music because of her star-powered name in film. “That maybe will get them through the door,” she says, but it won’t affect “whether … they think the record is good or not.”

Miss Driver, who was traveling with her band to their next show in Southern California when we caught up with her, doesn’t sound too concerned about the reception.

“It’s good,” she says. “We’re good.”

Miss Driver plays Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Birchmere (www.birchmere.com) in Alexandria, and Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Rams Head On Stage (www.ramsheadonstage.com) in Annapolis.

Kings ‘Sweep’-ing

Ah, the crane kick. The martial arts move that Gen Xers of all shapes and sizes have mimicked in hopes of seizing just one ounce of Ralph Macchio’s “Karate Kid” awesomeness. Many of us haven’t thought about it since 1994’s “The Next Karate Kid” reminded us of the futility of trying to surpass (or even equal) that singular moment of kick-butt glory.

Until “Sweep the Leg,” the very first single off the self-titled debut of No More Kings.

If you don’t listen to the words, you’ll hear a catchy little pop tune that isn’t too far off Maroon 5’s mark. But you must, we repeat must, listen to the words. They’re about that tremendous karate-tastic feat, and come not from the perspective of Daniel LaRusso (Mr. Macchio), but his flaxen-haired foe, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the one who took some evil advice from his sensei and “swept” Daniel’s leg, nearly crippling him in hopes of clenching victory.

If the tune itself isn’t nostalgia-producing enough, the imaginative video (directed by Mr. Zabka) reunites the two “Karate Kid” stars, as well as some surprise extras. It is, in a word, a hit, topping MySpace’s most-viewed lists, snagging nearly a million views on YouTube, and earning a mention on VH1’s “Best Week Ever” online.

“You know what’s funny?” asks Pete Mitchell, the Kings’ vocalist and chief songwriter. “I haven’t even seen the video out in the world yet. It still feels like something I made and put out there.”

The next single is “Michael (Jump In),” which name-checks David Hasselhoff’s “Knight Rider” character; additional tunes on the disc reference Smurfs, voguing and other ‘80s-isms.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Mr. Mitchell says. “It feels like an ‘80s album, but it really just addresses things that I grew up with. I don’t know … I’m not done with my childhood yet.”

No More Kings roll through Arlington’s Iota Club & Cafe (www.iotaclubandcafe.com) on Sunday at 8:30 p.m.