If Lynyrd Skynyrd was the southern rock band of the '70s and R.E.M. was the southern rock band of the '80s, then today's question is: Which band is the southern rock band of the '90s?

Though there are many worthy candidates - including the hillbilly hard-rockers Drivin 'n' Cryin', pop-rockers Guadalcanal Diary from Athens, Ga., and the evidently reformed Dumptruck - my money might be on North Carolina's five-piece the Connells.Blending Revolver-era Beatlesque pop with driving twin-guitar rock and even some Irish folk influences, the Connells may be the most original of the bands playing Johnny-come-lately to R.E.M.'s rock crown.

Each of the band's four albums has differed drastically from the others, including the current, straight-ahead approach of their college-radio smash "One Simple Word."

Bringing selections from the albums and combining it into a coherent package may seem like a tall order, but that's exactly what the Connells did Thursday night.

In their second Utah appearance, the Connells started out lethargically but finished with a flurry. Though the sound (in the typically murky Fairpark Building) was a bit uneven, the group's set, especially three encores, was terrific.

Concentrating early on material from the current release, the band held newer fans mesmerized, while leaving some older fans waiting for the folksy pop that made the Connells media darlings early in their career.

The wait was definitely worth it, as lead vocalist Doug MacMillan returned from the band's initial set with a sparkling solo acoustic cover of Split Enz's "I Got You."

Though the group may have seemed like copycats for their cover of the Tremeloes' "Here Comes My Baby," a song most people associate with Cat Stevens and one that New Jersey's Yo La Tengo turned in a superb cover of last year, the Connells were able to flesh out the number a little more than those predecessors.

As for their original material, how can you fault a set that included the gorgeous folk number "Scotty's Lament" (from their "Boylan Heights" release), the punchy "Upside Down" (from 1989's "Fun & Games") and the current smash single "Get a Gun?" The answer is, you don't.

About the only complaint you could make is the standard one about the sound quality in Fairpark indoors shows, and make a wish that the much-missed Speedway Cafe will make a return, and soon.

Also, despite recent worries about festival seating and general admission shows, with only about 2,000 in attendance, there wasn't much to worry about in the way of security.

Opening the show was local five-piece the Pleazers, and realistically, though the band tried, the name doesn't really fit. Neither did the band sound compatible with the show's headliners.

Although some of the band's original numbers show some talent, especially in the way of instrumentals, the band's set was marred by its awful selection of covers, including the Beatles' "Revolution" and David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel," which the band mangled beyond belief. It could have sounded better in a show that was more suited to their more traditional pop-rock approach. Maybe.