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Kathy Mattea offers her hits to Manhattan fans

By Gary Clift

Country music star Kathy Mattea apparently does more than one kind of concert. We got the stripped down one, the “acoustic living room” edition that features Bill Cooley’s acoustic lead guitar, Mattea’s flat-top rhythm playing, and the singer’s fine voice. She’s lost nothing in the voice department.

That was soon evident during the 7:00 show she performed Friday in the Wareham, downtown, as part of K-State’s McCain series. The refurbished theater sounds pretty good these days, and is a comfortable place to hear music, as those of us wowed last fall by the Jazz trio led by Cyrus Chestnut can aver.

The early Mattea show, which seemed to be sold out, was just right for the venue, and although it required some amplification of the stringed instruments, it seemed just right for the hall.

The award-winner from West Virginia went at a regular pace through 17 songs, including the ballad encore which I believe was Dougie MacLean’s “This Love Will Carry.”

Music fans who go to see old favorites don’t, generally speaking, want surprises at the concert. They want to hear the hits, hear the voice, hear music of the variety associated with the performer. Making a little adjustment for the scale of this series of concerts, most of us can say we got pretty much what we wanted out of Mattea’s MHK appearance.

She and Cooley did “Where’ve You Been?,” a song her husband co-wrote, and “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” encouraging audience singing with the concert’s version of the song—a very, very gentle version of a number that can easily rock and rock hard. She told a couple of quite brief stories.

One was about her desire to improve her singing by taking vocal lessons. Another was about wanting to improve her guitar playing by learning an instrumental number of Cooley’s, one section at a time.

And then the two of them gave us a fair sample of the lower tempo range of her material. It seemed as if more than half the songs in the show were ballads. Mattea commented a couple of times on how the songs kept telling about people dying.

In fact, there were more than a couple of story songs. One cover tune the duo performed was Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” which old music fans will remember includes the suicide of its title character. Cooley chose to play the backing guitar line without the jolting hitch you would recall.

And Mattea didn’t let the eerie mystery of that song take over her presentation. She told us she had discovered that skippidy do-dah Donna Fargo, known for “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” once recorded “Ode to Billy Joe.”

The incongruity was comic.

To listen to Mattea’s music, though, is to be reminded of her interest in Celtic music— she even played a song with a pronounced drone, on the five-string banjo—and in folk music. But then she would do a relatively pop piece like her

“Come From the Heart” and would add to its finish a quote from the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.”

Both of the musicians maintained their admirable intensity during the show. Cooley is a limber-fingered picker, equally at home fleshing out backgrounds behind vocalizing and knocking off a verse and a chorus of single-string soloing.

And Mattea was obviously very conscious of what she was doing when singing. In comparison, her master of ceremonies comments were less carefully enunciated and projected, which shows how hard she was concentrating on putting over the songs.

Still, there was the ballad syndrome problem. A show like Mattea’s could leave its audience feeling pretty blue. Nor was this just coincidental. Her next to last number was a pure Rock and Roll tune, complete with Chuck Berry guitar.

But, as with “Eighteen Wheels,” the musicians didn’t really get up and rock out during the playing. A detractor once referred to Twins star Rod Carew as the “singles hitter.” Well, Mattea and Cooley weren’t going to sacrifice control for swings at the fence.

Mattea’s crowd, however, got what it expected and wanted. There was disciplined and agile playing. There was the singer’s lovely voice, several of her best known tunes, and a show that reflected her career.

Which all made for a pleasant Friday night show.

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