GIG REVIEW: Kathy Mattea – Live At Kings Place, London

Credit: Drew Loschke

Kings Place is a beautifully designed arts centre that opened around ten years ago. Its two auditoriums have perfect acoustics making either an ideal venue for artists who rely on their voice accompanied by no more than a couple of guitars. So who better to shine in such surroundings than Kathy Mattea?

These superb acoustics were put to the test by Mattea’s support, Scottish singer-songwriter, Roseanne Reid. After a set highlighting songs from her soon to be released debut album she will have earned several new fans, attracted by the honesty of her lyrics and a voice that tugs at every heartstring. To hear Reid sing you’d think she comes from East Tennessee rather than the east coast of Scotland. She introduced both voice and inspiration with what seemed a semi-semi-autobiographical, ‘Girl Who Took A Chance’. ‘What Constitutes A Sin’ asked fundamental questions and with her final song, ‘I Love Her So’, Reid stamped her mark as a writer and performer. Already she has turned ears; none other than Steve Earle with whom she wrote and has performed ’Sweet Annie’ and Teddy Thompson who produced her record. People will walk many miles to see her in years to come.

Kathy Mattea took the stage looking and sounding radiant. Nobody could ever accuse her of going through the motions. Having toured over land and sea from Scotland to Ireland then down through England seems to have energised rather than exhausted her. Time does fly though, it’s eleven years since she last performed over here. But those years and many more before that melted away with the warmth of her songs, music and easy going chat in between.

Another reminder popped up and that is her sheer versatility, both in her material and voice. The latter was something many must have had at the back of their minds on hearing Mattea live for the first time since the changes to her voice that afflicted her several years ago. We needn’t have worried. The stunning result of her hard work in rehabilitating her voice can be heard in last year’s release Pretty Bird. She has also banished her justifiable concerns about continuing to just enjoy singing. This show was proof.

‘Evenin’ with its brisk pace was a well-chosen opener. From the start her ‘secret weapon’, finger style guitarist who’s played in Mattea’s band for 29 years Bill Cooley, gave a virtuoso performance in both backing Mattea and taking some deserved limelight for himself.

Mattea has worked with so many other people. ‘Ready For The Storm’ is perhaps the best known example of her partnership with Scottish musician and songwriter, Dougie MacLean. Describing the song as an essential soundtrack to her recent travels she took us from the hall’s aural purity to the waves crashing against a northern coast.

Then there are the songwriters whose work Mattea has so creatively recorded. In her preamble to the Nanci Griffiths ‘Love at the Five & Dime’ she looked back without regret at what the well-dressed rising country star was wearing back in the 1980s. Her version of the song has stood the test of time rather better than big hair and shoulder pads. Bobbie Gentry would be proud of Mattea’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’, a song she said took a lot of time to perfect.

Cooley plays a big part in selecting songs and his scope isn’t limited to country or American origins. From the new album they delved into traditional Irish folklore with ‘He Moves Through the Fair’. Mattea’s delicacy in voice and Cooley’s precision in picking added further haunting layers to this classic.

Ten years ago Mattea made an album about coal mining, once the principal industry in her native West Virginia. Influenced by disaster recent and longer ago, she was deeply moved by the hardship wrought on those working in such perilous conditions. Tonight’s ‘Red- Winged Blackbird’ and ‘Coal Tattoo’ have lost none of their power to move.

A more contemporary interpretation came in Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now’ also from Pretty Bird. Mattea attributes reclaiming her voice to many of the songs from this new record. In a way, her spiritual rendition of ‘Holy Now’ gave thanks for that salvation.

‘455 Rocket’ brought the set to a rousing end. As they returned for an encore a voice from the audience shouted ‘Love Travels’ to which this carefree Mattea responded with the first verse and chorus before closing with ‘This Love Will Carry’.

Kathy Mattea is timeless. Courageously she regained her voice, recognising that recovery was by no means certain. At the outset of this performance she gave the impression of taking care not to stretch her voice too far but then those limits were pulled apart further until they snapped. Wonderful. Above all Mattea likes to sing and wants everyone else to enjoy that pleasure. Encouraging a shy audience to come out of themselves by joining in on ‘Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses’ was her reward, and ours.

Lyndon Bolton