The Americana scene may be in a hurry to anoint a young star, but newcomer Mindy Smith, the designated torchbearer, is not quite ready for prime time. "My head is spinning," Smith says in her record-label biography, reacting to, among other things, the swiftness with which she was booked on "The Tonight Show." Her head seemed to be whirling still during a spotty 70-minute set for an audience that barely filled one-third of the 1,220-seat theater at Berklee.
Smith is a graceful, unremarkable songwriter with a handful of pretty ballads and mid-tempo country-rockers under her belt. She sings in a clear, pretty voice, plays passable guitar, and comes with a bold-print back story, a tale of triumph in the face of adversity that is designed to color her material with an extra portion of gravity. Smith's adopted mother died in 1994 when the singer was 19, and that's sad. But when did adoption, by a loving and devoted family no less, become an affliction, or fodder for a press release? Smith herself seemed a bit embarrassed by the hard sell. "That was a song about my tragic life," she remarked after performing "Raggedy Ann," in which the artist plumbs the psychological fallout of wearing hand-me-downs.
Smith struggled with her singing, especially during the first half of the show, but her technical failures translated to emotional successes. Imperfections -- little cracks, missed notes, and thinness of breath -- gave these songs a vitality and humanity that's missing from "One Moment More," Smith's neatly buttoned record. It was missing, as well, from her stage persona, which was distant at best and at times downright distracted. All the genial mandolin and ardent slide guitar money can buy -- and Smith's seasoned band was stellar -- can't imbue a woman with warmth.
Smith did wrangle some passion for her tunes -- although never for the people who paid to hear them -- later in the set. She sang "Train Song," a hard, sweet waltz, with a deep purity that evoked Alison Krauss. On a stripped-down rendition of "One Moment More," the title track from her debut, Smith summoned an urgency to match the lyric about her mother's final hours. "Come to Jesus," the closing song of Smith's main set, featured a crackling electric guitar solo and a hair-raising a cappella finish that made one wonder why it had taken so long to introduce a crazy little thing called dynamics into this concert.
When opening act Garrison Starr came out during the encore to sing, along with Smith's guitarist, on a cover of the dark Dolly Parton gem "Jolene," the simple delight of their close harmonies moved one to ask, once again, why Smith chose to withhold such pleasures during her largely cold-blooded set.
Starr showed great promise as a folk-pop singer-songwriter during her own set, chasing imaginative melodies and choosing bold notes with the serene confidence of someone who knows she can deliver them beautifully. Charlie Mars, whose voice is an intriguing amalgam of Willie Nelson and Jeff Buckley, leavened his pageant of laid-back country-rockers with "When the Sun Goes Down" and "Gather the Horses," a pair of sweeping tunes that sounded like a Southern-bred Coldplay.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org