What can a singer do with a song like "Is There a Birthday Cake in Heaven"? Or a lyric that reads: He belongs to me/He's a valuable heap/I'm aiming to keep/send him c.o.d.? Not much.

But when veteran folk singer Carolyn Hester turned to more substantial songs at the Birchmere last night, her seven-year absence from performing on the East Coast seemed much too long a time. The petite singer, with an equally tiny soprano voice, can still hold her own as a folk singer, even when she's rearranging an old Buddy Holly tune or a Gershwin classic like "Summertime."

Although her own songs were uneven at best, Hester did provide ample evidence that she can come up with worthwhile material on occasion. She simply has to curb an apparent appetite for the cute and trivial.

Earlier, fellow Texan folk singer Nanci Griffith wasn't always sure of how to approach a song. Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," for example, was part mountain ballad, part Dylan impression. More often, though, Griffith sang her own songs, many of them beautifully crafted ballads that captured the flavor of the Southwest.

Guitarist Brian Wood delicately embellished the songs of both singers.