In recent years, Washington has developed one of the largest and most loyal audiences in the country for acoustic folk and pop music. This was never clearer than Thursday night, when that audience nearly filled the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a concert by six bandless singer-songwriters who are neither the most popular nor the most gifted members of their genre. Rather, Jonathan Edwards, Jesse Winchester, Holly Near, Karla Bonoff, Jesse Colin-Young and Claudia Schmidt are the kind of hard-working, rank-and-file musicians who keep the singer-songwriter field alive. Washington's support for them was heartening, and the performers responded with well-crafted, warmly delivered songs.
Northern Virginia's Edwards was a congenial host. Looking dapper in his tan crewcut and black string tie, he joined his guests for one song apiece, adding his harmonica solos and sweet high harmonies. When he performed by himself, Edwards unveiled an unrecorded, poignant divorce song, "Sticks and Stones," and the more upbeat title song from his forthcoming children's album with Phil Rosenthal, "Little Hands."
The evening's spectacular voices belonged to the three women. Wisconsin's Schmidt opened the show with her own brand of upbeat blues, which she often topped off with beguiling scat solos. She sometimes sabotaged them, though, with her overwrought dramatic recitals. Los Angeles' Bonoff sang in a big, thrilling country-rock voice. Her songs, like the brand-new movie theme "Baja California," boasted striking melodies even if the lyrics were a bit cliche'd.
Near has refined her already imposing vocal gifts even further; she sang with a new finesse in her dynamics and phrasing. Unfortunately, she devoted her rare talent largely to her new passion: highly theatrical, inch-deep sentimental love songs. Only when her pianist, John Bucchino, launched an aggressive jazz attack on "Watch Out" did she respond with a new understatement and punctuated rhythm that transformed her old protest song into something less confident and more realistic.
The evening's most welcome revelation came from Montreal's Jesse Winchester, who unveiled a handful of new songs that are among the best he's ever written. Full of telling detail and sly irony, they contained such delightfully ambiguous lines as "Don't I wipe away the tears that I bring to your eye?" Never a great singer, Winchester delivered these new gems with the apt understatement of his husky southern drawl and spare guitar fills.
The evening's biggest disappointment was San Francisco's Jesse Colin-Young, the founder and namesake of the Youngbloods. His voice was a hollow husk of its former glory; his newest songs were pretentious art-rock even in their acoustic format, and their lyrics represented the worst of California psychobabble.