Reviews > Shows
Kathy Mattea at The Birchmere
Photo Credit: Cindy Dyer, Dyer Design
Birchmere Music Hall
“We are quickly losing our ability to have a nuanced conversation about anything we disagree about,” country turned Americana-folk artist Kathy Mattea said as she spoke of the Appalachian-born music that she now performs. It’d be too easy to credit election fatigue for the enthusiasm with which the Washington, D.C.-area audience cheered that statement. Mattea’s songs of romance, hard work and parental pride are arguably a bellwether for many in this rocky economic and social climate.
As Mattea and her band took the stage, it was clear the multiple Grammy Award winning artist was ready to guide the audience on a sonic trip to her West Virginia roots. Opening with the title track of her September release “Calling Me Home,” Mattea and her band then slipped into “Lonesome Standard Time” from her 1994 album of the same name. Although Mattea was in the midst of her mainstream country music career when the later album was released, the song’s lyrics prove that even then she wasn’t far away from her Appalachia roots.
Do you feel a kindred spirit, to the sound of pouring rain?
Does your heart start to yearning when you hear a distant train?
If you’d like to take that train and ride, to someone left behind
You don’t need the wind to tell you, you’re on lonesome standard time.
Although Mattea’s upbringing was filled with the sound of Appalachia, she didn’t fully delve into the area’s music until she recorded the Marty Stuart-produced album “Coal.” When she recorded the 2008 album, in response to the 2006 Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 West Virginia miners, she thought it was a one-time venture. But Mattea, an environmental activist, soon found herself in no hurry to leave region’s sound.
“I grew up surrounded by a treasure trove of music,” she told the audience. “Although I had all of that music around me, there was no one to teach me about it.”
Spurred by the disaster, Mattea taught herself with plentiful input from Stuart, who is widely known as a music history savant.
While the messages of the songs Mattea sings are sometimes melancholy, her onstage banter is anything but. On this night, she was full of self deprecating remarks including about teaching herself to play a few songs – including “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” and “Hello, My Name is Coal”— on the banjo.
“I must tell you that I practiced these two songs on the banjo for you,” she said laughing. “So you are getting both of them!”
As Mattea moved through the set, it was clear why just the night before she was lauded as a featured performer at the all-star tribute to Hazel Dickens at the International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville.
A critic at Bluegrass Today deemed her a cappella performance of “Black Lung” at the high-profile Music City event “hauntingly beautiful.”
Although her Birchmere encore – an a capella performance of “Calling Me Home,” — was similarly stirring, it was her cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” that sent shock waves through the audience.
“We might be acoustic,” said Mattea after the cheers quieted, “but we can still feedback.”
And move music lovers of all stripes.
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