TVD Live: Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer at the Birchmere, 8/27

PHOTO: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF | It’s a bit of a head scratcher why it hasn’t been until now that Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have collaborated together. The sisters have each carved out distinctive careers with varying degrees of commercial success over the last 30 years, released 24 albums between them, and share in an Alabama upbringing and tragic family history.

The only excuse they could give in a lovely duo concert Sunday at The Birchmere, celebrating their first album collaboration, is that they were living on opposite coasts. They finally found time last year to record 10 tracks with Teddy Thompson for a new album this summer called Not Dark Yet.

They performed the work of almost all cover songs with a backing trio—in order, start to finish—their clear, evocative voices blending in a way siblings often can. Their cover choices were meant to surprise, songs they said were country mainstays around the house. So in addition to Jessi Colter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes” and Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” which they said they were singing as long as they can remember, there were more unusual choices from the rock arena, from the Killers’ “My List” that began the show, to Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” deep into the set.

They all fit the tone of engulfing warmth, but none so well as their Townes Van Zandt selection, “Lungs” or that of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ “The Color of a Cloudy Day.” The only sibling song they took up was the Louvin Brothers’ “Every Time You Leave,” but they did it in the yearning style Emmylou Harris used when she recorded it. The title track brought back one of Bob Dylan’s languid, mid-period high points, beautifully done with Moorer taking her place behind the grand piano as her sister played guitar.

The one great misstep from the album, a wrong-headed stab at Nirvana’s “Lithium” that began in the wrong key, somewhat righted itself on stage eventually. But the whole idea of doing that song at all seemed more borne of a producer’s wild notion.

The best of the bunch is the new one they wrote together, which portends well for the next collaboration they say they’ll do, full of their own songs they’ll write together. “Is It Too Much” is a stark song that comments on the heavy burden both sisters carry after they witnessed their father, drunk, shoot down their mother and then turn the gun on himself. Shelby Lynne was 17; Allison was 14. ”Is it too much, the feelings you try to hide?” they sing. “No one else walks up on this road / No one else bears this heavy load.”

Lynne, 48, and Moorer, 45, came dressed as a couple of rock chicks, in leather pants and black T-shirts that were in fact their tour merchandise shirts—everybody in the band was wearing them, but only because they were saying any that were sold that night would go to relieve the Houston flooding. Later in the set, when they traded their own songs, they harmonized on Moorer’s “Thunderstorm / Hurricane” without further comment.

And even if they hadn’t sung together previously, they referred to one another in their earlier songs, as shown when Moorer began her “Easy in the Summertime,” or Lynn did “She Know Where She Goes.” Each celebrated the rural simplicity of their upbringing in the South, from Moorer’s “Alabama Song,” the title track of her first album 19 years ago; to “Where I’m From” from her sister’s Grammy-winning 1999 triumph, I Am Shelby Lynne.

Lynne referred to Moorer as “Sissy” more than once on stage, but it also seemed to be a two-sided nickname, when Moorer called Lynne the same thing (a sticker available on the merchandise table of “SISSY” would probably mean a third thing if you put it on your bumper).

Yet proof of Lynne thinking of her sister if not singing with her all these years emerged in her “I’ll Hold Your Head” from her 2011 Revelation Road, when she described yet another down-home scene of growing up and sang, “Come on Sissy let’s close the door, don’t want to hear the noise no more.”

My List
Every Time You Leave
Not Dark Yet
I’m Looking for Blue Eyes
The Color of a Cloudy Day
Silver Wings
Into My Arms
Is It Too Much
She Knows Where She Goes
Alabama Song
Where I’m From
Easy in the Summertime
Thunderstorm / Hurricane
I’ll Hold Your Head

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