Matchbox Twenty Catches Fire At Star Lake

"I wish the real world would just stop hasslin' me," sang Rob Thomas. The lead vocalist in Matchbox 20, Thomas sang the line (and the hit "Real World") for a sellout crowd of 20,738 at Coca Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre Saturday night.

Considering that mere months ago Matchbox 20 was playing clubs and small cities like nearby Johnstown, Thomas' idea of the "real world" must be shifting somewhat. The band's lone album, "Yourself Or Someone Like You," has spawned four hits and sold a few million copies in the past year. Now instead of worrying about "Real World" topics like relationships, the government or big business, the band must consider how to please a swelling fan base while fending off critical barbs. Pleasing the fans at Star Lake wasn't difficult. The opening bars of every song generated shrieks of approval from the largely school-age audience. Hits like "3 am" and "Push" inspired intense swaying and loud singing along. Thomas' every pump of the fist, growled phrase or brief monologue was cause for vocal celebration.

The band's set included all 12 songs from "Yourself." "Argue" made for a dynamic opening tune, while "Damn" and "Kody" proved that Matchbox 20 could pull off something more moody and mid-tempo. "Busted" even delved into R.E.M.-esque weirdness, Thomas singing much of the song through what looked like a CB radio receiver.

"Tired," a B-side that Thomas claimed "didn't fit" on the album, may have been the group's most edgy, distinctive song of the night. Buoyed by some rocked up guitar riffing and a huge chorus, the song was instantly memorable.

A cover of the Prince-penned "Nothing Compares 2 U" proved to be a gamble that didn't pay off. Matchbox 20 played it in a strange, dark arrangement that would fit neatly on a Robbie Robertson album. The tune never really caught fire or felt like it fit with the group's other material, however.

The power trio Semisonic opened the concert. The band's short show ended, fittingly, with the current radio smash "Closing Time," much to the delight of the crowd.

Soul Asylum next played a driving 11-song set. Though the biggest shouts of recognition came for the likes of "Runaway Train" and "Misery," the band also roared through searing takes of "Somebody To Shove," "Black Gold" and "Candy From A Stranger." The band members couldn't be blamed if they're angry over their inexplicable fall from commercial grace, but singer Dave Pirner sounded sincere thanking everyone for "being so sweet and showing up early."

It isn't difficult to explain the commercial success of Matchbox 20. The group's gently rocking sound fits radio formats from alternative to rock to top 40, and they're nearly omnipresent on MTV. Young fans have latched on to the songs' repetitive lyrics and adore the fresh-faced, approachable-looking Thomas.

The big test for Matchbox 20 is upcoming, though. Will they be able to sell out Star Lake again in two years, or will they go the way of the Gin Blossoms and Collective Soul and end up scuffling for small hall gigs? An often fickle group of music consumers will soon let them know.

- John Young