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Kathy Mattea continues mining gems

Sanders Theater, Canton, Mass., January 21, 2012

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Kathy Mattea had a career altering moment when she released "Coal" back in 2008. Mattea viewed it as a one-off side project before getting back to her main country gig.

Wrong! And thankfully for Mattea (not to mention music fans), the disc got great reviews. Despite owning a slew of hits dating back to 1986 (although she has not even charted at all since 2002), Mattea continues pushing the music of her native West Virginia.

With good reason because with a few songs from an upcoming album out this summer plus a bunch of songs from "Coal" and past songs, Mattea once again showed what an excellent singer and performer she is live.

Mattea owns a unique smoky alto with a tremendous amount of timbre and flexibility. She was equally at home on country, folk, soul and gospel numbers. Of course, there was also the emotional component both in singing (she's easy on the ears) and talking from Mattea.

She talked passionately about "Coal" and what an important disc it was for her, how it reconnected her to her West Virginia roots, something she hadn't felt before. Mattea also knew how to lighten the mood with a variety of comments about songs, including one from her signature song, Where've You Been about Alzheimer disease. She also went for the jocular in song, particularly with BFD, a song based on a bunch of three-letter abbreviations.

Mattea was ably backed by a three-piece consisting of long-time acoustic guitarist Bill Cooley, upright bassist David Spicher and fiddle/mandolin player Eamonn O'Rourke. Each was given ample room to play out numerous times during the 110-minute show. Fortunately, the tried-and-true songs did not come off as paint-by-the-numbers effort. Instead, each song seemingly was invigorated by different arrangements and the skills of the musicians.

The lone misstep from Mattea somehow came during the very first song, Green Rolling Hills, and it surprised Mattea. She segued into Country Roads, Take Me Home, only to almost immediately forget the verse. She recovered in what would set the stage for a great night of music.

Fortunately, Mattea did not rest only on her past. How long can you keep touring behind an album, no matter how good it is? Mattea offered a few songs from her upcoming disc, Calling Me Home, an Alice Gerrard song done a capella and Jean Ritchie's West Virginia Mine Disaster with her band joining her. Both sounded strong.

Mattea reached back into her catalogue to close the nighth with From a Distance from 1991, telling the enthusiastic crowd that what stood out for her was the continued relevancy of the song.

Mattea may not be riding high on the charts these days, but as long as she keeps putting out music like "Coal" and bringing it on stage, she need not have any worries.