Birchmere Fans Hooked on Vonda Shepard

    By Richard Harrington - Washington Post Staff Writer

    Wednesday,May 13, 1998


      "Ally McBeal" fans tuned in by turning out at the Birchmere Monday night for a performance by Vonda Shepard, who on that popular television show portrays the lounge singer/inner voice/alter ego of Ms. McBeal. A tape of Monday's episode played later in the bar area for those needing a double dose of the show's theme song, "Searchin' My Soul." The Birchmere's restrooms remained single-sex, however.

      Not surprisingly, Shepard's live rendering of her 1992 song was more immediately ecstatic than on the show. After all, this is her first tour as a headliner (she previously sang backup for Rickie Lee Jones and Jackson Browne). Sporting a beatific can't-believe-it smile all evening, Shepard made no attempt to hide the immense pleasure of getting a second shot. She'd been a well-respected, big-voiced singer-songwriter for well over a decade, but only since she started appearing regularly on the show has she found an audience commensurate with her talent. On Monday, the Birchmere was sold out. As she sang in "The Wildest Times of the World," "ain't it funny how you're walking through life/ and it turns on a dime!"

      Though she does mostly covers on "Ally McBeal" (and on the just-released soundtrack album), Shepard did only three at the Birchmere: the Exciters' 1963 classic "Tell Him," Left Banke's elegant "Walk Away Renee" and the ebullient "Hooked on a Feeling," a hit for both B.J. Thomas and Blue Suede, as well as the song that first brought Ally and the Dancing Baby to the dance floor. Instead, Shepard drew from her three albums, particularly 1995's "It's Good, Eve," and introduced several new songs -- including the hard-edged inquisition "Will You Marry Me" -- that will undoubtedly be showing up in future episodes.

      In person, Shepard projects a willowy, elfin grace that's much looser and far more charming than her television persona. Playing mostly electric piano and backed by a three-piece band, she proved a confident, accomplished musician and emotionally direct singer, though sometimes too reliant on showy melismas and soaring upper-register swoops. Shepard's pop-churchy pianistic attack is reminiscent of Carole King and Wendy Waldman, and her voice melds confessional empathy, bluesy abandon and rock insistence. On Monday night, the overall sound was energized, and clearly benefited from songs that lasted longer than a single verse and chorus.

      Those songs often addressed difficulties in finding, sustaining, rekindling or redefining romantic relationships, the search for self in the midst of multitudes and the quest for spiritual surety in a material world. "Like a Hemisphere" was an elegiac confirmation of nurturing love, "The Wildest Times of the World" a testament to rocky roads, restless journeys and smooth arrivals. Even songs like "Baby Don't Break My Heart Slow" and "Grain of Sand" tempered romantic pleasures with heartaches, while the electric guitar-driven "Confetti" bemoaned the difficulty of being heard in a troubled relationship. Shepard shone on the shifting emotional dynamics of "Hotel Room View," and closed the show with "Maryland," "This Steady Train" and "100 Tears Away," a trio of soft-spun ballads that reflected her sometimes troubled but ultimately affirming nature.
      Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company