Not so "Smooth"
Livewire File Photo: Phil Bonyata
Story by Andy ArgyrakisWhenever a singer spends time fronting a band- especially in a period lasting nearly ten years- he's often pigeonholed into that act's formula. In the case of matchbox twenty's Rob Thomas, the front man sought to break out from the group's late 90s alternative pop/rock peak and re-establish himself with a montage of soul, R&B, Latin and regular old rock and roll influences. However his main problem in concert, like the roots where he came from, was the fact the material's steeped in paint by the numbers, radio catered characteristics.
Sure, it's likely to earn placement on just about every countdown show across the country (and his Justin Timberlake-esque buzz cut won't hurt for the MTV crowd) but is the songwriter really stepping out to make an artistic splash? Much of his solo debut in Chicago resulted in a resounding "no," seeming more like a identity confused side show than a definitive direction carved out on solely innovative pretenses. Across a setting that looked like bathroom wall tile when unlit with a four-piece band and three background singers, Thomas tried really hard to make several "different than matchbox twenty" statements and still came across as generic.
Several cases in point could be cited, from the watered down funk of "Streetcorner Symphony" to the average fast fisted stadium pop of "This Is How A Heart Breaks" to the dully, white washed grooves of "I Am An Illusion." Such selections came from the brand new endeavor Something To Be, an overly hyped but less than ideally rated record likely to churn out at least a couple singles. The first, "Lonely No More," earned a rousing response, but its club tinted bass thumps and ethnic influences lacked the gusto of say Sting in his experimental post-Police career.
Speaking of that early punk turned adult contemporary icon, Thomas mirrored his style of stripping down group hits for acoustic or jazzy renderings. Though they were few and far between, a couple key cuts from the past were interspersed with the less familiar, including a cocktail lounge take on "3AM" and the solo guitar strummer "Push." Fans were obviously there because of the matchbox twenty brand name, and unlike an ultra cool artist like Frank Black avoiding many Pixies cuts in the Catholics, Thomas should've offered more. (He could've picked from the enormous pool of "If You're Gone," "Real World," "Bent," "Back 2 Good," "Disease," "Mad Season" and "Unwell" just to name a few).
Where Thomas did profit was during an encore of "Smooth," the insanely overplayed partnership with Santana and first example of acceptance outside of the group's context. Instead of going through the motions with the obvious arrangement, he lowered the tempo by several steps and tipped it towards southern flavored swing. That surprise, along with some unexpected Lionel Richie crooning during a couple choruses of "Easy," took up the most enjoyable minutes of an otherwise unremarkable set. It's probably not enough to stunt the superstar's popularity (and album sales by the millions are still likely to follow) but consider them attributed to name recognition rather than creative credibility.
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