At the Jeanne Rimsky Theatre on Saturday, an audience waiting for the start of Americana crooner Kathy Mattea's show gazed upon a handsome lineup of nine stringed instruments – several guitars, a standup bass, a wired violin, mandolin and a bouzouki. They probably weren't thinking of Jean Ritchie just then, but it was a musical still life for an evening that would ultimately involve Ritchie.
This first appearance at the Landmark venue for Kathy Mattea, mainly known for 16 mainstream country top ten hits, delighted a clearly expectant audience. As observed by John Platt in his introduction, Mattea emerged as part of an 80's folk-country hybrid later dubbed Americana. Mattea herself confessed she was “maybe 24” at the time, with matching country bouffant hair and shoulder pads. “A rough time to 'get famous,'” she said. Famous she was, and her prior work brought out a large local audience.
Reprising a few of her hits, Mattea and her ensemble performed “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” and “Love at the Five and Dime.” She also reprised “Love Chooses You,” which she said was performed at her wedding 25 years ago, and an early tune, “Lonesome Standard Time.” When she sang “Agate Hill” from her recent album Calling Me Home, Mattea showcased her ongoing skill at selecting from among the more gifted lyricists of her genre, in this case Alice Gerrard:
Oh, the words we’ve left unsaid
Flood into my soul
And I know you hear them now
Even as you go
Think of when you were a child
Dreams unbound by pain
Climbing up the Agate Hill
Wild and free again
Mattea worked up some banjo chops for two of her songs, including “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” which reportedly led to “some bad Deliverance jokes,” but mainly her own capable guitar work was accompanied by David Spicher on standup bass, Eamonn O'Rourke (violin, mandolin) and Bill Cooley (guitar, bouzouki). When she sang “Where Have You Been?,” Suffolk Country resident O'Rourke filled out the sound nicely by using a pitch-shifter, creating at once both the sound of a violin and a cello played in unison.
The show featured standout song-specific lighting. When red hues bathed the Landmark stage, the string bass seemed to swell with color as bassist Spiker plucked. Later, and seemingly just the right moment, the rear of the stage morphed to a dreamy blue pastel.
Kathy Mattea's Ritchie connection isn't just hype tailored for locals. Mattea's 2008 album, Coal, begins with two Ritchie songs, and Calling Me Home features still three more. On this occasion, Mattea paired "West Virginia Mine Disaster,” with its unanswerable “What will I say to his poor little children?” She also offered her version of “The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore,” a Ritchie song covered by Johnny Cash and others.
At this point in the evening, one half expected Jean, lap dulcimer in hand, to join Mattea onstage, but alas the former longtime Port Washington resident now graces her native Kentucky's Perry County. Happily, Ritchie's sons Peter and Jon were in the audience. When Mattea invited them on stage to sing, they were willing and able to chime in with a song they had learned as kids, “Swing and Turn, Jubilee.” The song was an immediate audience-pleaser.
As the brothers left the stage, Mattea quipped, “I love my job.”
Kathy Mattea's encore was none other than her a cappella version of Ritchie's “In the Cool of the Day,” an oft-performed anthem of sorts for the theater, which may well see the return of a singer this audience enthusiastically recognized as one of their own.
Landmark on Main Street's next show is Friday, featuring the Campbell Brothers.