The most iconic moment of Matchbox Twenty’s sold-out showcase at Miller Auditorium last night came, rather surprisingly, within the first few seconds of their set. A minute or two after 8:30 p.m., following a brisk opening set by reigning American Idol Phillip Phillips, the stage went black and the crowd started to scream. Seconds later, a spotlight cut through the darkness, slicing down from above the stage and bathing guitarist Kyle Cook in a warm light as he played the nostalgic opening notes of “Parade.” Maybe it was just my view from the he cavernous venue’s second balcony, a widescreen vision that allowed me to truly appreciate the towering ceilings and wide open spaces of the auditorium, but that single moment stuck with me. The way the light dropped upon Cook, almost in slow motion, was both elegant and symbolic, an ingenious visual hook that emphasized the yearning nature of the song at hand while also making a sweeping statement to the crowd: Matchbox Twenty was back.
A lot of times, in rock ‘n’ roll, when we use the term “comeback,” it’s a bit of a contradiction. Bruce Springsteen and U2, for example, two of my favorite artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s, staged so-called comebacks at the end of last century or the beginning of this one, but neither artist had been away from the game for very long. What they were doing was something more akin to a “return to form.”
However, what Matchbox Twenty is doing with this tour is a textbook comeback. When North, the band’s fourth full-length album, dropped last fall, nearly a decade had passed since its predecessor. The band had done a bit of touring, yes, and they had even recorded a EP’s worth of new songs to go along with their 2007 greatest hits collection (entitled Exile on Mainstream), but for the most part, fans were justified in wondering whether or not the group would ever be a viable artistic force again. Luckily, Matchbox Twenty’s concert last night proved that they’re not just viable: they’re in top form.
Make no mistake, North is not the band’s best album: it doesn’t have the vitality and life of 2002’s career-best More Than You Think You Are, and it lacks the wall-to-wall hits that made 1996’s Yourself or Someone Like You such a multiplatinum juggernaut. But regardless of its shortcomings, I’ve found myself returning to North a lot since its release, and much of that staying power is due to the strength of four or five key tracks. Smartly, it’s those same tracks that serve as anchor for the band’s current 25-song, two-hour setlist.
“Parade” is more than a worthy commencement. The best song frontman Rob Thomas has written in ten years, “Parade” built out of darkness into a stunning display of the band’s gorgeous stage layout, an explosion of roving spotlights and glowing neon lines that looked especially striking from the nosebleed seats. “Overjoyed,” a perfect Valentine’s Day love ballad, was equally striking. Thomas and Cook began the song in an intimate acoustic format before letting it blow wide open on the second verse and ensuing chorus. Cook got another moment in the spotlight on “The Way,” a U2-esque mid-tempo rocker that sat nicely in the main set’s penultimate slot. And North’s emotive closer, the cigarette-lighter anthem that is “Sleeping at the Wheel,” was nearly as sobering live as it is on record.
Interspersed with the North songs were all manner of greatest hits. The band struggled to win the crowd over with the two flagship singles from their 1999 effort Mad Season (“Bent” and “If You’re Gone”), but did so effortlessly with the throwback gems from their debut. “3 A.M.,” “Real World,” “Girl Like That,” and “Long Day” all helped to liven up the venue and provide a heartbeat for the middle of the lengthy set, and the duo of “Back 2 Good” and “Push,” the latter of which broke the band through to the mainstream back in the mid-90s, showed up in the encore, taking us all back to where Matchbox Twenty began 17 years ago.
But the best songs of the night didn’t come from the band’s beginnings or from where they are now. Instead, it was songs from More Than You Think You Are and Exile on Mainstream that really blew the roof off of Miller Auditorium. Groovy blues-rocker “Disease”—co-written by legendary Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger—was especially electric, kicking the concert into high gear only minutes after its introspective opening. “How Far You’ve Come” burst with kinetic energy, building to a riotous sing-along as Thomas repeatedly gave the crowd cues to participate. The punked-up “All Your Reasons” saw Thomas having more fun than he had anywhere else in the setlist. And a pair of scorching deep cuts—“So Sad, So Lonely” and “You’re So Real”—showed that this band, so well known for their heartfelt balladry, still knows their way around a rock song.
“This is for the person in your life who thinks that they’re awesome, but they’re just horrible,” Thomas said of the latter, eliciting more than a few chuckles from the crowd.
Somewhere in the middle of the set, Paul Doucette, the band’s second guitarist, grabbed the microphone to announce that the next day would be Rob Thomas’s birthday. And since the band has Valentine’s Day off, the rest of the show would just have to be his birthday celebration.
Thomas elaborated further in one of the few between-song breaks the band took all night.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday. I am going to be 41 years old…now…that’s the first time I’ve said that out loud,” he said. “So here’s the deal though, it means one thing: it means that I have the privilege of knowing what it was like to grow up in the time of radio. I know the thrill of being 17 years old, sitting in your room at night, with your fingers hovered over the record and the play button. And sitting there, waiting for the DJ to shut up so you can start taping your favorite song. So that you can make it into a mixtape. And you can take it out on your date.”
The audience roared in approval, many of them old enough to remember the same kind of experiences. And Thomas continued, talking about that mixtape and how Side A would be filled with really sweet, romantic songs, while Side B was on reserve for the strains Marvin Gaye. You know. “Just in case.” Thomas teased the opening lines of “Let’s Get It On,” Gaye’s most sensual and iconic hit, before launching the band into the appropriately titled “Radio,” a feel-good rocker from the new album, and a definite highlight of the night.
As the main set wound down, though, it was the piano chords of “Bright Lights” that heralded the rousing conclusion. The song, a modest hit from 2003, has always been my favorite thing Matchbox Twenty ever did, building from the balladic grace of its opening to a soul-scorching, intensely visceral finale. When Thomas belts “for God’s sakes turn around” and sends the song into overdrive, it’s like a signature rock ‘n’ roll proclamation. And hearing that song live, after being such a big fan of this band for such a long time (more on that in a minute) was almost a religious experience. Kyle Cook took center stage to end, standing strong as he delivered his most incendiary guitar solo of the night, the bright lights of both the song and the stage burning all around him. And then, moments later, it was over and everything went dark. The band would be back for an encore, one of big hits, deep cuts and a cover of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”—a mixtape classic from “the age of radio” Thomas was talking about earlier—but this song, with its patent shout-along chorus and explosive grandeur, was the show’s emotional peak.
Matchbox Twenty wasn’t my first favorite band, but they were certainly one of the three or four that helped really get me into music in the first place. I can still remember when I was six or seven years old, I’d be sitting in the car on the way to school and my brother would slide his copy of Yourself or Someone Like You into the CD player. Those songs, the hits and the album tracks alike, were some of the first cases of music really providing a soundtrack to my life, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Matchbox Twenty were one of the most ubiquitous bands of the 1990s: in coming to Western’s college campus, they were largely playing to an audience that was growing up or coming of age when “Push” and “3 A.M.” were breaking through to the mainstream. Thomas talked about growing up in the age of radio, of finding the perfect song drifting across the airwaves and recording it onto a cassette tape for future use, but for many of us in the audience last night, it was his band, his music, his songs that we would sit around waiting for the DJ to play. And this show, with its expert balance between nostalgic throwback and fresh perspective, captured that idea perfectly.
View the full setlist here.