I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the Smith Sisters show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA last week. While Debi Smith has had a long and successful career as a solo artist, and as a member of Four Bitchin’ Babes, it had been some time since she and her sister Megan had toured as the Smith Sisters. Together they produced a number of well received albums, starting with their 1984 debut, Bluebird, and ending with 1993’s wonderful A Canary’s Song, but they’ve only performed together sporadically since. I am happy to say that despite a few bumps along the way, they put on a very entertaining show.
Firmly ensconced in the folk and country genres, beautiful harmonies are the hallmark of their music. For the vast majority of the show it was clear they had lost none of their synergy. Debi Smith possesses a very powerful voice, with an extremely impressive range. On songs such as “In My Dreams,” a lovely song about the comfort and nostalgia that goes along with aging, her range was on impressive display. Megan Smith’s voice doesn’t seem to have the range of her sister’s, but complements it very well. After a bit of a shaky start harmony-wise, they warmed up as the show went on, and by the end were firing on all cylinders.
Much of their catalogue consists of songs written by others, including Pete Kennedy, Robin and Linda Williams and Buddy Mondlock. But Debi Smith is also an accomplished songwriter, and their set included a mix of both covers and originals. They ranged from the melancholic Smith penned “Pampa, Texas,” about weathering tough times with the ones you love, to Andrew Calhoun’s “Folk Singers are Boring,” a humorous and satiric take on the stereotype many have of folk music. Highlights of the evening included Kennedy’s “Distant Thunder,” a bittersweet song about the sadness of leaving loved ones to pursue a dream, “(My Father Was a) Quiet Man,” Debi Smith’s beautiful tribute to their Nebraskan born father and their gorgeous take on Cheryl Wheeler’s “Arrow.” They ended the night with a scintillating version of an old classic, “Shenandoah.”
For a while in her early career, Debi Smith played with an all-woman Celtic Band called the Hags. During that stint, she became quite an accomplished Bodhrán player. She accompanied herself to great effect on “In My Dreams,” and with Al Petteway on “Sligo Creek.”
Petteway, whose contribution added an additional layer of depth to the show, accompanied the Smith Sisters throughout the set. A Grammy award winning guitarist, he is perhaps best known for the aforementioned “Sligo Creek,” which was used by Ken Burns as the theme for his PBS documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. After the intermission, Petteway played a couple of solo numbers, including the captivating “Spindrift.” It is included on his album Whispering Stones, a compilation of Celtic inspired tunes he released in 1994. It had a very ethereal quality, and I couldn’t help but hear a bit of traditional country in there as well, almost New Age with a twang.
Overall, a very enjoyable show.