Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
athy Mattea has been at that point in her career for quite awhile that artists don't exactly look forward to - as she aged, the chances of being played on commercial country radio lessened. In fact, Mattea, 59, has not had a Top 40 song ("Love Travels") since 1998.
And Mattea has not exactly been prolific in putting out new albums either. Three in 13 years, but she is out with her first disc in six years, the very fine "Pretty Bird."
While Mattea could have relied on her hits - she has a lot of them - in concert, the West Virginia native fortunately did not pass herself off as a hits machine.
Yes, it was great hearing three-decades hits like "Goin' Gone" and the trucker's love song "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," her first two chart toppers, but it was even better hearing the new material.
As if to underscore the fact that she stands proudly behind "Pretty Bird," Mattea started with "St. Teresa," written in part by Joan Osborne, apparently about a drug-using prostitute. Accompanied by her backing trio of acoustic guitar ace Bill Cooley, who has been with her for 28 years, brand new bassist Eric Frey and fiddle player Frank Carpenter, Mattea brought this and the rest of her songs very alive. Their consistently tasteful, but sometimes understated playing, enabled Mattea's voice to shine.
Mattea took a long time in between albums because she felt as if she had her lost her singing voice. She showed few signs of vocal wear and tear throughout the 110-minute show.
Mattea contributed a well-done version of "Ode to Billie," the Bobbie Gentry chestnut. Mattea sometimes gave further context to the material. She jokingly told how she gave "Pretty Bird" to the mother of a music camper she had recently met. The mother, who had apparently never heard the song before somehow, wondered just what was thrown off the bridge - "the million dollar question," of course, according to Mattea.
Mattea sparkled on her encore song, "Pretty Bird," penned by fellow West Virginia musical icon Hazel Dickens. "I have loved this for years," Mattea said. "I tried and tired and tired to do this song and couldn't get it. I put it a way for years." Apparently she got it right on her disc, performing it there and live a capella. It's a powerful song of love and freedom.
Mattea presumably has no illusions that she will once again enjoy the hits. No matter because she obviously has deserved confidence in new material in playing most of "Pretty Bird."
She should because the highlight of her set - and the song that drew the biggest response from the crowd - was her take on Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now." Without getting overtly political, Mattea made clear the song has relevance for these troubled times in the U.S. "I love my church and country/they could use a little mercy now," Mattea sang.
Mattea nailed it, getting to the heart of the song with her tender, thoughtful delivery, getting a well-deserved standing ovation from the small crowd of maybe 100.
Mattea has aged well. Hits or not.