TVD Live: The Secret Sisters with Mary Bragg at the Hamilton, 10/4

PHOTO: ABRAHAM ROWE | The Secret Sisters come off like a classic duo from the golden age of country music, or maybe before that—the string band era of the Depression days. Existing in the 21st century is a whole lot harder, they have found. But survival seems certain based on their reliance on the kind of sibling harmonies that bring to mind the Everly Brothers—and a wicked sense of humor promulgated by the elder sister, Laura Rogers.

At their headlining show at The Hamilton in DC Wednesday, she was the one that talked almost as much as they sang, with funny observations and off-the-top of her head dream interpretations that were meant to be the comic relief to a set that by their own admission relies mostly on balladry and sad songs.

They began with “Tennessee River Runs Low” almost as a warm up as how their lovely harmonies work. Laura often sets the tone for the melody and guitar-playing Lydia sings high or low as the song requires, sometimes within the same song. The two voices and guitar, as happens in some rare duos, create something bigger than the two, and it’s a lovely thing to behold.

Lydia’s guitar work—simple and strong—shouldn’t be dismissed, nor her crucial addition to the comedy, by playing the eye-rolling straight man to her sister, or adding sarcastic commentary like “Oh, that was a good idea.”

Their own original songs rely a lot on failed relationships—one particular one that Laura kept talking about that was as emotionally scarring as it was an eventual creative bonanza. But the upbeat songs were a highlight as well, from their early rendition of “Black and Blue” to “You Don’t Own Me” meant to close the main set (they sang a couple more, eschewing the forced theatrics of the encore’s leave and return).

Before that song, Laura told of their problems being dropped by their record label after a second album sold disappointingly, being sued, filing for bankruptcy, and considering dropping the music business altogether before they were picked up by New West for a new album. The crashing of the early part of their career may have been underscored by the fact that they had been on Bob Dylan’s label and had their first two albums produced by T Bone Burnett before it all went south.

It’s surprising that the two don’t cover a lot of really old country songs to go along with their retro vibe. Instead their two covers Tuesday were pop staples of the 1950s with very similar titles, the much recorded “You Belong to Me,” which begins “See the pyramids along the Nile” and saw its biggest hit from Jo Stafford, and the fun a cappella of “Tonight You Belong to Me” that begins “I know (I know) you belong to someone else” and was a hit for the Lennon Sisters.

They mentioned only briefly how brutal the week had been with the massacre at a country concert in Vegas. But I hoped they’d do a Tom Petty cover (“Wildflower” would have been perfect) as memoriam as well, at least one from Don Williams, perhaps a more influential artist on them, who they said they listened to growing up.

When it came to a song that really spoke to the moment though, it came from their opening act Mary Bragg, who closed her set of strong songs with “Recover.” “Another devastation, chaos in the street,” begins the song she co-wrote with Ali Sperry, who also recorded it. “Which it was a nightmare, but I am not asleep.”

By its final line, “History stuck on repeat, loss that begs for us to grieve, can’t be frozen in disbelief. How do we recover?” she had tears in her eyes. It showed how perfectly music can crystallize a moment.

Tennessee River Runs Low
Black and Blue
You Belong to Me
King Cotton
To All the Girls Who Cry
If I Don’t
Bad Habit
Carry Me
You Don’t Own Me Anymore
He’s Fine
Tonight You Belong to Me

Lucky Strike
The Other Side
Bayou Lullaby
I Thought You Were Somebody Else
Done Ain’t Done

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