By Jim Abbott
of the Sentinel Staff
April 19, 2001, 4:38 PM EDT
Itís tempting to lapse into melodrama to describe Rob Thomasí childhood in Orlando:
A trailer-park teenager who coped with his motherís cancer, Thomas lived on the street as an aspiring musician before making his dream come true in an ending worthy -- so far -- of a Walt Disney tale.
"I donít recommend it," Thomas said of his bumpy adolescence, "but I donít think I wouldíve had the views that I have now if I had gone the Little League route. If I had come from a nuclear family, I would have a totally different headspace. So I appreciate all the knocks and the left-of-center stuff."
Fans of fairy-tale endings will appreciate Thomasí latest triumphant homecoming with matchbox twenty, which headlines with Everclear and Lifehouse Saturday at TD Waterhouse Centre.
The bandís arena tour, in the wake of its multiplatinum Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty, is among the yearís hottest concert tickets. And Thomas is still basking in the adulation of three Grammys for "Smooth," his collaboration with Carlos Santana that revived the guitar heroís career.
He also is happily married to the former Marisol Maldonado, a New York City model he met after a matchbox twenty concert in 1998. The couple lives quietly in an upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood in Westchester County, N.Y.
So if youíre looking for someone to bemoan the trappings of rock stardom, better go elsewhere.
The downside is "not enough to note," Thomas said, speaking rapidly in a post-sound check interview. "I play music for a living and I do it with a group of really talented people. I canít bitch about not being able to go to the mall because I never liked to do that anyway."
And though the bandís decidedly middle-of-the-road pop approach has spawned its share of critics, Thomas is the consummate nice guy, according to his colleagues on the road.
"I was expecting not to really hang out with them," said Lifehouse lead singer Jason Wade. "But Rob, especially, really went out of his way to be nice to us. He took me and my wife out to dinner the other night and paid for it and everything."
Thomas chuckles about Wadeís reaction.
"It makes me think back to when I was younger," Thomas said. "I remember going to [former Orlando nightclub] the Edge to see Counting Crows and thinking, ĎWow, theyíre really nice guys.í I want to be that guy to someone else."
Although comfortable as a rock star, Thomas, 29, would rather be remembered as a songwriter, a vocation that he considers better suited to a long-term career.
"You can always write, even when you get old and fat and canít run around on stage."
After establishing his credibility as a pop songwriter with such hits as "Push," "3 A.M.," "Real World," "Back 2 Good" and "Bent," Thomas is venturing outside matchbox twenty for collaborations that might match the success of "Smooth."
"After the Grammys, there was a huge influx of offers for me to write songs with people," Thomas said. "But sometimes it seems like a waste of time when youíd rather be writing songs that you like for you."
On the road, Thomas keeps a guitar handy on the bus and backstage in case inspiration strikes.
"I just keep writing, which is good because youíre not writing for something. If youíre constantly writing, then when it comes time to record, you take the 12 best songs from whatever youíve done. It gives you a diversity because one week youíre listening to old jazz and then next week youíre listening to old techno."
Outside the band, Thomas considered working with Tim McGraw before embarking on separate projects with country singers Phil Vassar and Willie Nelson, who plans to do several Thomas songs on an upcoming album. Among them is "Recollection Phoenix," a ballad Thomas conceived waiting for a bus departure.
"Itís the only road song Iíve ever written," he said. "It was great doing it for Willie because Iíve been a fan of his since I was 9."
Working with icons such as Santana and Nelson has changed the way Thomas looks at the music business, he says.
"Youíve got to remember that before Carlos Santana, we had sold 12 million records," Thomas said. "But all that didnít have the impact of that one song with Carlos. Thatís the force of a legend."
Likewise, Thomas looks at the careers of other talented musicians, including former Orlando pals, and acknowledges the fickle nature of pop stardom.
"Seven Mary Three is an incredible band and Orange Avenue was a great album," Thomas said. "These are the things you have to remember to keep you humble. The Jayhawks and Steve Burry [of Orlandoís My Friend Steve] havenít sold 10 million albums, and those are phenomenal talents. You have to remember that youíre still a work in progress."
The post-Santana spotlight has led to speculation that Thomas might be ready to part with drummer Paul Doucette, lead guitarist Kyle Cook, rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor and bassist Brian Yale to embark on a solo career.
Not so, Thomas says.
"Without every person in the band, it wouldnít be what it is."
He is more concerned about the changing image of Orlando in the wake of the teen-pop revolution.
"Not to pick on the boy bands, but I think itís kind of sad," Thomas said. "I remember it being a big singer-songwriter town, where everybody would be sitting in with each other. It was the Mill and Sapphire. That was really what Orlando was about."
Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel