It has been quite some time since renowned Country artist Kathy Mattea played a concert in Ireland. She has been a celebrated and established singer since the 1980’s when the first of her, now fifteen, releases arrived on the music scene. This Tradfest venue is something that she enjoyed fully, revealing that her inner voice kept reminding her “you’re playing in an 800 - year old Church”. It is indeed a regal setting where you can feel the ghosts of centuries past in the cold air and dancing in the muted lighting that washes across the magnificent ceiling and walls...
Bill Cooley has been Kathy’s musical companion for 29 years now and his understated and dextrous playing on acoustic guitars tonight is quite a treat to witness live. He is the most fluent of players and has a creativity that enhances each song with harmony lines and solo runs that never repeat across the 16-song set that lasts for 90 minutes. He plays with an economy that always serves the song and Kathy also plays guitar across much of the set. She shows that she is no slouch when it comes to rhythmic accompaniment and her strong playing allows Bill to take flight into his creative colouring of the song arrangements. The sound is excellent, given that the instrumentation is quite sparse and it says a lot that the numbers do not suffer greatly from the lack of a band to add more texture to the arrangements.
It has been 6 years since the last album release but the arrival of Pretty Bird in late 2018 signals a welcome return and Kathy performs 6 tracks from the album. Of these, the sublime guitar playing of Bill Cooley is really highlighted on the traditional Irish Folk song, She Moved Through The Fair. The song title has been turned into ‘He’ for dramatic effect, in what was a haunting and poignant performance from both musicians. The other songs from the latest release were; Ode to Billie Joe (Bobbie Gentry), Chocolate On My Tongue (Oliver Wood), This Love Will Carry (Dougie MacLean), Holy Now (Peter Mayer) and Mercy Now (Mary Gauthier). It is the performance of the latter song that really captures the spirit of the night and her superb delivery is a call to focus on the kindness of our natures in such troubled times. A song for these days of fear and uncertainty indeed.
The set list tonight also included Evenin’ (Mitchell Parish, Harry White), 455 Rocket (Gillian Welch, David Rawlings) and some old hits such as Ready For The Storm (Dougie MacLean), Goin' Gone (Pat Alger, Bill Dale, Fred Koller), Love At The Five And Dime (Nanci Griffith), Untold Stories (Tim O'Brien), Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses (Gene Nelson, Paul Nelson) and Come From the Heart (Don Williams.
Mattea provides an eclectic mix of styles with a little folk, bluegrass and gospel influences mixed with her interest in Celtic ballads. Having just played at Celtic Connections in Scotland, she speaks of her previous appearance on the original Transatlantic Sessions from 1995. Her stage presence is very confident and assured, showing an easy conversational style between songs with lots of stories about her career and the specific songs she chooses to record. She speaks about being a steward of these songs and says that one of the benefits is being able to bring new songs to people who have never heard them before.
She also reflects on growing up in the music business at a time when you didn’t have a studio in your phone; when a record deal was everything as you needed lots of money to go into a studio. She also speaks about the voice problems she experienced in recent years and the need to attend a vocal coach to help her find her new voice and be able to sing again. If she is singing a register lower than before, then what of it; the skill in song selection at any age is always the key and Kathy remains one of the best interpretive singers of her generation with an intimacy in her delivery which convinces the listener at every turn.
Indeed, she speaks of her process and technique and of sometimes “having to find your way into a song” and how sometimes this can happen when she is not trying too hard to carry this off.
Her husband, songwriter Jon Vezner, co-wrote with Don Henry what is considered by many, including Kathy herself, to be her signature tune; Where Have You Been? This is performed with subtle tones by Bill Cooley on guitar, perfectly capturing the moving sentiment of the song. Another number, Mary Did You Know? (Green, Lowry) is sung as a Christmas song but it feels just perfect in this setting.
It proved to be a warm night of song, with some great highlights and the audience were very enthusiastic in their appreciation of this superb artist and her richly talented sideman.
Review by Paul McGee Photograph by Vincent Lennon