There was no mistaking guitarist Seona McDowell's Australian upbringing at the Wolf Trap Barns yesterday afternoon. Not with a stuffed koala bear perched at the edge of the stage, English and Irish convict ballads filling the air, and McDowell's own lively-accented, appealing soprano giving an extra lift to "Waltzing Mathilda." No, McDowell is definitely from Down Under.
Whether she's a folk singer, as she was billed, is another matter. While one could argue that she is to Australian folk music what John Denver is to American folk music--namely, several steps removed from the real thing--she is nonetheless a bright, amiable performer whose talents are more easily appreciated in concert than on records. For example, many traditional Australian ballads are riddled with words whose meanings are lost on Americans. McDowell's cheery annotation, often as amusing as it was informative, proved the highlight of her opening set.
The balance of the concert was less impressive--a mix of contemporary tunes, including two by Denver and such standards as "Oh Susannah." Even so, McDowell's performance was never short of pleasant and the backing provided by three area musicians--Michael Stein on fiddle, Bill Emerson on banjo and Bryan Smith on bass--was surprisingly surefooted, given the little rehearsal time accorded them.