What is it about the recent crop of female singer-songwriters that leads them to back up their acoustic guitars with light synthesizer washes, a fretless bass and tastefully subdued electric guitar? Did someone say this was the only acceptable musical configuration? Sara Hickman had that lineup at the Birchmere Wednesday night and the generic sound almost pushed her into the anonymity of "post-Suzanne Vega female vocalist." Not quite, though, as her apple-cheeked charisma carried her through, winning the crowd with no difficulty.

Her lengthy introductions almost made the tunes redundant, as her topical songs bluntly got to the point. "If We Sent Our Hearts Over Now," "Aurora" and "In the Fields" fairly hammered home their politically correct lyrics, lack of subtlety being Hickman's major weakness as a songwriter. She's much more successful on the well-trodden terrain of men and women and the crazy stuff they do to each other. "Too Fast" turned the tables nicely on men and their desires, and "Shortstop" had her clear voice singing about her individuality with conviction.

Cliff Eberhardt opened the show with a strong set of original songs, accompanying himself with distinctively percussive and dynamic acoustic guitar playing. With a husky Hiatt-like voice, Eberhardt ran through most of his release "The Long Road" -- the title cut being particularly strong -- and ended with a jazzy twist on "Makin' Whoopee."