Acoustic singer/songwriters are a common sight at the Birchmere, but last night, the venue hosted Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, two artists who are accustomed to playing significantly larger venues (each has performed at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in the recent past).

But the musicians didn’t seem at all out of place on a smaller stage, alternating songs and trading stories in a two-hour set at the sold-out club. The night began clumsily, with chatter about their days and their dinners that sounded like awkward blind-date chit-chat. But the two quickly settled into a comfortable conversation, playing off each other as they casually selected songs to perform.

Their back-and-forth exchange highlighted the differences in their styles. Hiatt’s raspy voice was much more animated than Lovett’s. His hoarseness added to the desperation on “The Open Road;” the bluesy “My Baby” oozed with a reckless energy; and even the warm tenderness on “Have a Little Faith in Me” escalated to a howling plea.

By contrast, Lovett was more restrained. The somber “North Dakota” bore a slow, beautiful sweetness; his repetitive delivery made the base urges on “She Makes Me Feel Good” seem more aching than sleazy; and he captured a yearning heartbreak on the devastating “If You Were To Wake Up”.

The two musicians traded songs equally, but Lovett came across as the dominant force on stage, always asking questions of Hiatt, from his gear (medium-gauge flat pick, medium-gauge strings, and the John Hiatt model of the Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar) to unfortunate tour stories (a college campus gig in the 1970s where no one showed up), and from the most unusual artist to sing a John Hiatt song (Paula Abdul) to the origin of the phrase “careless panties” in his song “My Baby” (stolen from a friend’s son).

Their camaraderie was clear, but their mutual respect was even more obvious, as each one watched the other intently during songs. And when they finally performed together on a few songs at the end of the night (most strikingly, “Thing Called Love”), the raw beauty of their blended voices heightened the intensity of their expressive music.

1) “Gone” (Hiatt)
2) “La to the Left” (Lovett)
3) “All the Lilacs in Ohio” (Hiatt)
4) “If You Were To Wake Up” (Lovett)
5) “What Do We Do Now” (Hiatt)
6) “What Do You Do” (Lovett)
7) “The Open Road” (Hiatt)
8) “The Road to Ensenada” (Lovett)
9) “Drive South” (Hiatt)
10) “North Dakota” (Lovett)
11) ? (Hiatt)
12) “She Makes Me Feel Good” (Lovett)
13) “My Baby” (Hiatt)
14) “Nobody Knows Me” (Lovett)
15) “Cry Love” (Hiatt)
16) “Fiona” (Lovett)
17) “Thing Called Love” (Hiatt with Lovett)
18) “Natural Forces” (Lovett)
19) “Tennessee Plates” (Hiatt)
20) “If I Had a Boat” (Lovett with Hiatt)

21) “Have a Little Faith In Me” (Hiatt)
22) “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” (Lovett with Hiatt)

» The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave, Alexandria; Wed. Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m., $110 (SOLD OUT); 703-549-7500.
» The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave, Alexandria; Sun. Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m., $110 (SOLD OUT); 703-549-7500.

Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
Photo by Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post