From his newly dyed hair to his sense of humor, it was a darker Hal Ketchum who appeared at the Birchmere Tuesday.

When he came through town last year, Ketchum was celebrating a new marriage and an end to health and substance abuse problems. This time around, the singer-songwriter generally directed the crowd's attention to his musical assets.

Clearly self-conscious about not having any recent radio hits, he joked, "My record company just let me out of their witness protection program."

Ketchum said he hoped the drought would end when he gets back into the recording studio early next year, and he previewed a lot of the new material. "My Heart's Got a Mind of Its Own," a sweet ballad in the Nat King Cole vein, seemed the most likely to be chart-bound. The downer "Blue Shadows," and "She Is," a too-personal love song written for his current wife, weren't so engaging.

On this tour, Ketchum is backed only by guitarist Robbie Gjersoe. Some of his slower, more thoughtful material, like the bluesy "Awaiting Redemption," benefited from unplugged arrangements. But most of his best songs and biggest hits are poppy, up-tempo numbers, and fared less well.

Even with Gjersoe working every string and fret, it wasn't easy to distinguish "Past the Point of Rescue" from "Hearts Are Gonna Roll" or "Small Town Saturday Night" or "Sure Love." The crowd, however, didn't seem to mind.