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Kathy Mattea sells "Coal" in concert

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., April 8, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Kathy Mattea enjoyed a very successful recording career with a bunch of hits under her belt from the mid-'80s to the late '90s. The West Virginian's star wasn't what it once was - the hits and sales stopped coming. And after a few solid discs on smaller labels in recent years, Mattea decided to totally go her own in releasing, "Coal."

Now Mattea apparently didn't take the easy route either. While releasing albums on your own is gaining traction these days as the label model is hemorrhaging, making a theme disc about "Coal" may not be.

But Mattea should have the last laugh because this is one of the finest albums of her entire career, and she is on the road supporting the release she apparently loves so much. That's a real good thing because Mattea was simply excellent.

Mattea combined her vibrant, heartfelt singing, very strong songs, mixing new and old, and a very warm stage presence that comes through loud and clear. And having Mattea in a room holding maybe 135 people was a special treat for the audience.

The 105-minute show was roughly split between new and old. Mattea deserves credit for playing a large portion of "Coal," especially since it had only been out for a week, and the audience probably knew very very few fans knew the material.

The themed disc came about after Mattea was glued to the television several years ago watching the Sage Mine disaster in West Virginia, bringing the concept of songs she had stored for future use to reality.

She started the show with the Merle Travis song "Dark as a Dungeon" backed by her very capable trio of long-time sidekick Billy Cooley on acoustic guitar, David Spicher on upright and Eammon O'Rourke on fiddle/mandolin.

She turned in a strong reading of Darrell Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" along with the sad "Lawrence Jones" by Si Kahn, about a United Mine Worker killed during a protest in Harlan, Ky.

Given her upbringing - Mattea's mother worked for the UMW and her grandfathers were miners along with her father - Mattea sings with a sense of credibility in clear, measured tones with a lot of feeling, not exactly a surprise.

Mattea did some of her hits as well, including "Goin' Gone," "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and the very bouncy, lively "455 Rocket."

Near the end of her set, Mattea sang by far her most tender hit, "Where've You been' about a husband and wife going through the aging process. It's a tearjerker of a song, and Mattea explained how the song brought new meaning to her over time. While originally co-written by her husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry about Vezner's grandparents, Mattea related that her mother now suffers from Alzheimer's. While the maudlin feeling could have remained, Mattea once again went a different path. She related the story of her husband visiting his grandparents in a nursing home the "where've you been" line more in the form of "where the hell have been all this time," lightening the mood.

The crowd left in a happy mood too because Mattea still amply brings a lot to the table.