Folk singer Bill Staines's thick glasses and gray beard gave him an avuncular demeanor Tuesday night, and his sleepy, disarming voice lulled the Birchmere crowd into a receptive comfort. This understated stage persona merely camouflaged a very hard-working craftsman who has cobbled together evocative details, pithy aphorisms and sing-along melodies into a trunkful of marvelous songs.
Typical was "Where I Live," a song about Staines's New Hampshire home. The dryly delivered verses sparkled with visual images of ducks swimming on an unfrozen patch of river and of a truck axle left unfixed. The chorus summed it all up with a catch phrase about roads that take us away and bring us back home and with a catchy melody that the crowd learned effortlessly. With his plaid shirtsleeves rolled up and his cowboy hat tilted back, Staines told deadpan stories and sang songs from his new album, due next month.
Splitting the bill with Staines was Julie Gold, who has received considerable acclaim for writing Bette Midler's peace-anthem hit, "From a Distance." Her middle-of-the-road pop is closer to Carole King and Carly Simon than to Staines or Nanci Griffith. Gold's songwriting is sometimes inspired, sometimes strained, but her performance made it abundantly clear why she hasn't yet released an album: Her wandering vocal pitch was wince-producing; her tempos shifted arbitrarily, and her piano notes were just as random.