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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Mattea's Crazy Horse Set Comes From the Heart : Once indistinguishable country artist, who has slowly emerged as a fresh and vital voice, flies loose and free in her Santa Ana show.


SANTA ANA — You've seen it happen scores of times: an artist starts out loose and impassioned and is slowly ground down by time until she or he is safe and prim.

That seems to be the case with Kathy Mattea--except she's doing it in reverse.

With rare exception--notably her 1986 cover of Nanci Griffith's "Love at the Five and Dime"--the material she started with in the mid-'80s did little to distinguish her fine voice from the formulaic Nashville norm. In concert she was personable, but not quite a personality.

With each passing album, and particularly the leap she made with 1989's "Willow in the Wind," Mattea has slowly emerged as a fresh and vital voice, questing to reveal the true romance and life in material that might seem mawkish and overly sentimental in other throats.

The 33-year-old Mattea even looked younger in her performance Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House. The woman who once wore processed curls and country-ish long dresses was sporting a sharp haircut and body-clinging black hot pants. Mattea seemed entirely at home onstage, joking and confiding as if she were among family. You don't often hear Kenny Rogers revealing, "I feel a little puffy today," as Mattea did Monday.

In the past couple of years, Mattea has been playing more concert halls than clubs and clearly enjoyed the relative intimacy of the Crazy Horse stage. Remarking on her proximity to the front rows of the audience, she remarked, "Isn't it nice to play a show where someone else can wipe my sweat from their brow?"

She and her responsive band delivered a 17-song set that was recording-studio-perfect while still flying loose and free. The set touched on some older hits, including "Untold Stories" and the trucker's romance "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses," but also drew heavily from her most recent album, 1992's "Lonesome Standard Time."

That album's "Listen to the Radio," Mattea's opening song Monday, is little more than a slurpy kiss on the hand that feeds, and she sang it with a commensurate lack of feeling.

But, like Garth Brooks, Mattea performed several songs that nudge toward a moral. Though she does little writing (her lovely "Leaving West Virginia" suggests she should do more), if a song she covers has a heart, her voice unerringly reveals it.

She introduced "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)" by saying: "It's about having to compete, living with your eyes on someone else instead of enjoying your own lives. . . . I've been through a lot of ups and downs in the last year, and learned it's enough to have a roomful of people who want to hear me." Her ensuing vocal captured the isolation that can come from not seeing what's all around you.

"33, 45, 78 (Record Time)" used speeds of old vinyl records to bemoan passage of things, from coffee percolators to free-form radio, in a clever lyric that also took some serious turns: "I hear talk about a great depression / I hear the drums of the war machine / I wonder if I'm stuck in the past / Or if it all repeats just like a CD."

The other strong message song Mattea pulled form "Lonesome Standard Time" was "Seeds" by Garth Brooks contributor Pat Alger and Ralph Murphy. That song speculates on why one child grows to fulfill his dreams while so many don't: "We're all just seeds in God's hand / Where we land is sometimes fertile soil / And sometimes sand."


Unlike some country belters, Mattea keeps a lot in reserve. Instead of overwhelming a lyric, which could easily make lyrics like those quoted above seem bloated and self-important, she finds just the right feel for each word with her warm voice.

At one point in the show, Mattea was joined up front by some of her band members. She touched a tuning fork to one temple to find a pitch, and then launched into some seriously wonderful a cappella singing on the Fairfield Four's arrangement of the traditional gospel song "My God Called Me This Morning."

There, she proved she can indeed belt it out with the best of them when she chooses, with a gutty, keening voice reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt's more inspired outings.

Still, her most effective moments came when she was working quietly inside a lyric, as on "Where've You Been," the 1989 hit written by her husband, Jon Veznor, and Don Henry. It's an unabashedly romantic ballad about love enduring through age and illness, and she sings it with a plain beauty that easily can bring a listener to tears. With a few exceptions, everything Mattea and her band touched turned to gold. On "Whole Lotta Holes," her voice was shadowed by guitarist Bill Cooley's singing slide work.

Cooley and fiddler/mandolin player Jonathan Yudkin were allowed the most expressive moments, but the whole band was excellent, lending an understated Celtic fire to "From a Distance" and pouring clear vocal harmonies into a cover of the Beatles' "The Night Before" (which the band worked up for a PBS "In the Spotlight" special due to air in May).

Other songs in the set included "Time Passes By," "Untold Stories," "She Came From Fort Worth" and Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris' "Amarillo."

The penultimate song of her set was the 1989 hit "Come From the Heart," and judging by her performance one can only presume that Mattea has taken its lyric to heart:

You've got to sing like you don't need the money

Love like you'll never get hurt

You've got to dance like nobody's watching

It's got to come from the heart if you want it to work.

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