Hal Ketchum

If you hadn't seen 52-year-old singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum in a while, it took a minute to spot him Thursday amid the five musicians on the Birchmere stage. Ketchum, previously noted for his movie-star good looks and prematurely platinum hair, these days looks like a sheriff on "Deadwood," with a brief salt-and-pepper goatee and stringy dark hair highlighted by the familiar silver temples. His blousy peasant shirt completed the roughrider look.

Ketchum's voice has seasoned as much as his looks, but any vocal limitations were overcome by his sheer exuberance in performing his hybrid of country, rock and blues, including some tunes that were country radio staples in the early 1990s. The newer songs he performed kept with his tradition of addressing big themes through intimate details and hanging them on ear-catching melodic hooks.

He gleefully galloped through "Past the Point of Rescue," "Hearts Are Gonna Roll" and "I Know Where Love Lives," backed by a percussionist, a drummer, an electric bass player and sure-handed electric guitarist Kenny Grimes, one of Nashville's best-kept secrets.

Ketchum's countrified update of the Vogues' 1965 soul number "Five O'Clock World" is as striking as ever -- it's likely to be the tune you hum on the way out the door -- but the set highlight was an unexpected diversion into mirth. The band kicked into a lounge-lizard shuffle as Ketchum, barely concealing a smile, launched into "The Continental Farewell." This ersatz love song changes tempo at the punch line of a chorus and rhymes "adios" with "not even close" in breaking the carefully constructed post-coital mood. Cruel, but very funny.

-- Buzz McClain

Rachael Price

Singer Rachael Price, who performed at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Thursday night, is young, gifted and conspicuously out of sync with contemporary pop. Raised in Tennessee, the 19-year-old vocalist grew up listening to jazz, in thrall to Ella Fitzgerald, among others.

Price is still assimilating her influences and discovering little gems to add to her repertoire. During Thursday's concert, for example, Price confessed she hadn't understood Billie Holiday's appeal until she recently began to explore the singer's legacy. Her performance of "Comes Love" didn't mimic the jazz legend's distinctive, behind-the-beat phrasing, but it nevertheless cast a sultry spell. "It's a good song, huh?" said Price afterward, still marveling at her find.

As the performance unfolded, it became clear that Price, a jazz studies major at the New England Conservatory of Music, has the talent to match her enthusiasm. She certainly didn't make things easy on herself. Neatly accompanied by pianist Warren Wolf, bassist Erik Privert and drummer Dave Brophy, she zipped through a Judy Garland-inspired rendering of "The Trolley Song" with requisite charm and zest. She also had no problem dealing with the thicket of jagged intervals posed by Thelonious Monk's "Introspection" (complete with a delightful lyric penned by singer Dominique Eade, one of Price's mentors).

Some tentative moments surfaced here and there, including scatted passages that sounded more studied than swinging. But nothing blemished Price's quietly affecting interpretation of "I Remember Clifford" or her dreamy, blues-shaded performance of "Out of This World."

-- Mike Joyce

Mary Gauthier

Mary Gauthier seems like a bit of a perfectionist. Everything was just so at Iota on Thursday night: rows of chairs on the floor, the bouquet of flowers stage left, Gauthier's attire of artfully shredded jeans and spangly flowered shirt-jacket.

But the plaintive-voiced Louisiana native was less diva than devout; her songs brimmed with prayers. "Mercy Now," also the title of her newest album, wasn't an explanation but a request on behalf of a troubled world: "I know we don't deserve it," she drawled, "but we need it anyhow." "Prayer Without Words," a chugging country-rocker, celebrated those moments of peace that emerge despite road-weariness and worldly corruption. And "Wheel Inside the Wheel," which "started as a prayer and ended up as a prayer," as Gauthier drolly noted, was dedicated to the late metaphysical folk songwriter Dave Carter. Amid the torrents of guitar from Gauthier and her electric-guitar accompanist, Thom Jutz, Gauthier painted a picture of fallen dreamers -- from Satchmo to drag queens -- dancing in a celestial second line.

Gauthier is adept at adapting conventional country song forms to her own purposes. If Ernest Tubb is in that heavenly wheel, he's probably singing Gauthier's laconically rationalized "I Drink," as well as envying her for having written it. And even if "Mama Louisiana," one of her first compositions, didn't have post-Katrina nostalgia going for it, it would still be a rich evocation of the artist's homeland.

Clearly Gauthier has a lot to be thankful for. Praising the "best sound of the tour," she even tried to poach Iota's sound man: "I'd like to announce that John is no longer employed here -- he's coming on the road with us!" Yep, it was pretty close to perfect.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Stephen Lynch

There's not a whole lot one can report in a family newspaper about a Stephen Lynch performance. But let's try: For nearly two hours at Lisner Auditorium on Thursday, the clean-cut singer-comedian played his acoustic guitar and serenaded the crowd with a lovely, sensitive-guy tenor. Occasionally, sometime collaborators Mark Teich and Rod Cone joined him to help out with vocals. The set list included many fan favorites, including "Lullaby" and "Talk to Me," all of which were raucously received.

Thank you.

You see, Lynch's shtick is the fake-out: He comes off like the next Jeff Buckley, with pretty melodies about love and friendship and kittens. But then the 34-year-old choirboy gets twisted. Like "The Aristocrats" twisted.

"It's always been a dream of mine to play at . . . wherever the [bleep] we are," Lynch said, and as audience members freely heckled him, his fake indignation continued. Between admonishing everyone with variations of "Shut the [bleep] up!" Lynch screwed his face into Jim Carrey-worthy expressions as he sang about a range of topics, with necrophilia and gynecologists among the tamer ones.

The George Washington University staff might have been relieved to discover the show wasn't all stupidity and filth, with Lynch throwing out a "pluperfect" joke and making sure everyone understood the concept of irony. But when Teich challenged him to "play a song with some class," Lynch cheerfully failed, going instead with a tune called "Gerbil."

-- Tricia Olszewski

Hal Ketchum was at his exuberant best Thursday at the Birchmere.