- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

With her wavy golden locks, slim figure and confident swagger, singer-songwriter Toby Lightman could be a body double for actress Piper Perabo.

The resemblance grows even stronger when the musician starts recounting her tale: After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Miss Lightman moved to New York City with stars in her eyes and guitar in hand, became a bartender and landed a record deal within a year.

Sound familiar? That’s because, essentially, it’s what happens to Miss Perabo’s character, Violet Sanford, in the 2000 movie “Coyote Ugly” … minus the bar-top dancing and supermodel co-workers, of course.

Miss Lightman’s personal history is the real-life embodiment of that fluffy yet feel-good movie plot; it’s the kind of story that renews one’s belief in talent’s ability to beat the odds.

The musician grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied violin as a youngster. However, it wasn’t until college that she began playing guitar and writing her own songs. After earning a broadcasting degree, she took a leap of faith (to the Big Apple) that, just months later, landed her and her rootsy pop tunes in the hands of producer Peter Zizzo, who’d previously coached Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne.

After several industry showcases, she ended up on the Lava/Atlantic Records roster and announced her arrival with her 2004 debut, “Little Things,” and its hit single, “Devils and Angels.”

That first disc pulsed with programmed drums, swirled with bluesy acoustic guitar and string arrangements, and throbbed with her hearty vocals — a louder, throatier version of Norah Jones’.

A re-released version of “Little Things” came stocked with a cover of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” a song that could have set up the musical newcomer for disastrous comparisons; but Miss Lightman’s pure, soulful intonation and light, folk-edged interpretation showed her rising to the challenge.

Last year, the singer followed up with “Bird on a Wire,” a more “organic” record that ranges from Ray Charles-esque blues ballads to bass-laden rock using only live instrumentation.

The title is borrowed from her uncle, a folk singer.

“He had an album out in 1969,” she says. “It had a picture of a bird on a wire on the cover, so [my record is] sort of a shout out to him. But also, what that phrase means is to put yourself in a position of extreme vulnerability or danger.”

The titular words find their way into the lyrics of “Alone,” a track that sits at the thematic core of the album. In it, the warbler croons, “I wait like a bird on a wire/And I wonder if that day will ever come.”

She’s singing about love, but the lines “I’ve got so much to give/We’re not supposed to live alone” also hint at the artist’s sense of her musical gift, and the struggle inherent in growing an audience to support it.

With this “Bird’s” wings spread, however, the vocalist has charted the flight path for what looks to be a very promising career.

She’s already won opening slots for big-name acts like Rob Thomas, Train, Carbon Leaf and, on one very memorable occasion, Prince.

“You always hear these stereotypes [about Prince] like ‘Don’t look him in the eye,’ … but it was really nice to meet him,” she says. “He came over to me and basically took me and my band in. We got to pick his brain until four in the morning.”

Currently, the songstress is alternating between solo shows and warming up crowds for Taylor Hicks, the winner of “American Idol’s” fifth season.

When asked if she would’ve considered auditioning for a TV talent show like “Idol,” the artist replies, “When I was getting my deal, it wasn’t around. And I’m actually quite glad, because I like the way it’s happened: more naturally, in a progression. I’ve been able to get experiences and get my head on, to take things in stride.”

On Sunday and Monday at 7:30 p.m., she and Mr. Hicks play sold-out shows at the Birchmere (www.birchmere .com), and on Tuesday at 8 p.m., the chanteuse headlines at Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern (www.ramshead tav ern.com).

Ace of Parades

With the cherry blossoms past their prime, the real stars of the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s parade this Saturday (10 a.m. to noon) will likely be its performers — especially one aesthetically and vocally endowed lad named Ace Young.

The singer competed against Mr. Hicks in last year’s “American Idol” runoff, and lends credence to the theory that once you make it into “Idol’s” inner circle, you’ve already won the music industry’s popularity contest. (He’s got one of People Magazine’s “Hottest Bachelor” labels to prove it.)

Mr. Young’s new single, “Scattered,” beams like a shiny Maroon 5 ditty, and his handiwork can also be heard on Daughtry’s “It’s Not Over,” which he co-wrote with his “Idol” compatriot.

For more details on the parade, visit www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.

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