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Pop Music Review : Mattea Walks Away a Winner--but She Could Soar


SANTA ANA — One of the new songs Kathy Mattea played Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House was "The Cape," a bouncy ditty by Guy Clark about a seemingly wacko guy who spends his whole life jumping off garages attempting to fly.

Introducing it, Mattea said she considers the protagonist a role model for her as she grows old--not a strange wish considering the tune's happy ending: "He did not know he could not fly . . . so he did."

But of the many things Mattea has going for her to date, a crazy streak isn't one of them. She's the person who coolly and logically talks the guy down from the roof, not joins him.

Consequently, while her music often charms, comforts and uplifts, it rarely soars. That may be the reason that despite nearly a decade-long string of hits, her attractive dusky alto, her commendable refusal to pander for success with lowest-common-denominator material and her brightly engaging stage persona, she remains a notch removed from the bona fide queens of country music.

The Patsy Clines, Loretta Lynns and Emmylou Harrises have dared take the leaps of faith required to reach the entrance to musical Valhalla.

The closest Mattea came was when she closed the show with "Who's Gonna Know," another one from her new "Walking Away a Winner" album. Written by her husband, Jon Vezner, the song is the lament of an only child who realizes that once his parents die, there'll be no one left with whom to share and validate his earliest memories.

It risks coming off as self-pitying, and, in singing it, Mattea walked the fine line between bathos and sorrow. Ultimately, her unflagging good taste kept her on the right side of that line.


Most everything else in her 68-minute early show was precisely where it belonged: pristine two-, three- and four-part harmonies, compact instrumental solos and colorful song arrangements closely replicating the recorded versions.

Nearly half the 16 songs were from the new album, which, like its predecessors, is a case study in good taste. The one real stylistic leap of the evening was an a cappella gospel number on which Mattea took the lead while earthy background vocals were supplied by harmony singer Christie Westmoreland, guitarist Jonathan Yudkin, bassist Gerry Gillespie and steel guitarist Paul Martin.

But even on that number, when she reached the line "I heard the hellhounds barking," she couldn't conjure the visceral sense of evil that gives the great gospel singers their springboard to salvation.

That requires complete freedom from self-consciousness, something she addressed in "Come From the Heart," a No. 1 country hit for her in 1989. It's a study in lessons on life passed down by a wise elder (one of her favorite types of song, judging by the frequency with which she records them).

She punctuated its lyric--"You've got to dance like nobody's watching"--with a goofy little dance step, which she tossed off and then coyly curtsied, almost apologetically. It was a warmly human moment, but one that proved she has yet fully to take her own good advice to heart.

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