It's been a 'Smooth' ride for Rob Thomas and matchbox twenty

By Patrick MacDonald
Seattle Times staff critic

Rob Thomas has been Santanacized.

The formerly anonymous singer/songwriter of matchbox twenty became a bona-fide star via "Smooth," the monster hit from Santana's comeback album, "Supernatural." Thomas wrote the song, along with pop songsmith Itaal Shur, and his muted vocal was featured alongside Carlos Santana's fiery guitar solo on the irresistible Latin-rock smash.

The tune became one of the biggest singles of the past 10 years. It held onto No. 1 for 13 weeks in 1999 and won three Grammys the following year.

Up to then, Thomas was just another member of matchbox twenty, whose debut 1996 album, "Yourself Or Someone Like You," was a huge pop hit, with certified sales in America topping 10 million. It yielded the mainstream Top 40 hits "Push," "3am," "Real World" and "Back 2 Good."

But even while matchbox twenty enjoyed a high profile, its members remained mostly nameless. Despite hit singles and videos, and constant touring, Thomas didn't emerge as an individual star until the "Smooth" phenomenon.

Now he's the most in-demand songwriter in pop. According to Billboard, he recently collaborated with Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger and new country stars Phil Vassar and Holly Lamar. Spin reports he has pitched new songs to Tina Turner and Mary J. Blige and may have a song on Tim McGraw's new CD.

Matchbox twenty, Everclear and Lifehouse
7 p.m. Tuesday, KeyArena, Seattle Center; $32.50, 206-628-0888,
Thomas' Santana success also affected the new matchbox twenty album, "mad season" (the band likes lowercase names). The band's debut was rather bland mainstream rock, but the follow-up is better written, better arranged and more eclectic, with Thomas' singing and songwriting showing much improvement. It so far hasn't had the commercial success of its predecessor, probably because the songs are more complex, and the variety of material is harder to program because it doesn't fit neatly with commercial-radio playlists.

The songs from the new disc should make for a more interesting concert. Tunes like the romantic, torchy "You Won't Be Mine," the sweet "Rest Stop" and the rocking "Bent" would make for strong contrasts alongside cuts from the more generic debut disc.

"Smooth" proved to be a powerful transition between the two matchbox twenty albums, and made Rob Thomas' career. But you won't be hearing the song in concert. Matchbox twenty has vowed not to play the tune, figuring it belongs to Santana.

Despite matchbox twenty's and Thomas' popularity, Everclear has the potential to steal the show. The Portland band released two albums only four months apart - "Songs From An American Movie, Vol. One: Learning How to Smile" and "Vol. Two: Good Time For A Bad Attitude."

The two contrasting discs show a flair for rock songwriting, tight musicianship and strong leadership in singer-songwriter Art Alexakis. The first CD is the more probing, more serious one, with mostly midtempo songs about relationship issues, from parenthood to divorce and marriage (Alexakis experienced all of them during the making of the recording). The second disc rocks hard, sort of a release after the seriousness of the first. The two impressive albums contain plenty of material for the stage.

Opening is Lifehouse, a new, young band whose debut CD, "No Name Face," has done well, thanks to the single "Hanging By the Moment," the video of which is a favorite on MTV. It features the handsome profile of blond, wavy-haired lead singer/songwriter Jason Wade, formerly of Port Orchard. The band is now based in California.