Pushing buttons: Matchbox twenty ruled the Santa Barbara Bowl with a hit-packed set

By Mark Wyckoff, Ventura County Star (California)

No wonder matchbox twenty's Rob Thomas sings about being "Bent" and "Unwell." In concert Friday at the Santa Barbara Bowl, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter put on a bruising display of tortured emotion, acting like a human tambourine as he pounded himself on the chest, the thigh and the top of the head to drive home his tales of self-doubt and misunderstanding.

By the third tune of the group's 21-song, 105-minute show, Thomas was drenched in sweat even though a crisp breeze was blowing through the rustic outdoor venue.

By the end of the evening, after a three-song, vein-popping encore that wrapped up with the mega-hit "Push," Thomas' unruly mop of hair was soaked and sticking to his face. He looked bent and spent. Still, he was the last one to leave the stage, hanging around a full minute to shake fans' hands after guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette had split.

The fans loved that personal touch as much as they loved the hit-packed set, which included "Real World" and "3 A.M." from the rock band's massive 1996 debut "Yourself or Someone Like You," "Bent" from the 2000 follow-up "Mad Season" and the current Billboard Top 10 hit "Unwell" off of 2002's "More Than You Think You Know."

Thomas, wearing a light brown leather jacket over a blue 1989 Boca Raton, Fla., Biketoberfest T-shirt, laid out the ground rules for the show early. "I want to lock ourselves in here like it's a big bubble and just have a good time. Main thing is, we're all here to celebrate life together."

After that, Thomas kept the talking to a minimum, preferring to concentrate on the music. He's the chief songwriter for the group, and given the steady stream of hits he's crafted for MB20 and others -- including Santana's huge hit "Smooth," on which he also sang -- he's on track to become the 21st-century Elton John.

Mind you, we're talking '80s- and '90s-era Elton John; Thomas' hits are a little too slick, a little too generic to go down as classics. Still, he's got an amazing knack for writing stick-in-the-brain rock hits and equally impressive phrasing as a singer. In 10 years, maybe less, Disney's going to want him to start writing Broadway musicals.

But for now, he wants to rock -- which he and the band did with considerable (if predictable) abandon. Standout tracks were a rockin' ride through the new CD 's "Bright Lights," with Thomas pounding away on piano, Doucette thrashing his drum kit and Cook and Gaynor wailing on guitars, as well the change-of-tempo psychedelia of "Mad Season."

Cool, too, was an acoustic version of "If You're Gone." Thomas, bathed in a white spotlight, sounded particularly vulnerable as he sang the song, backed only by Cook on electric guitar and background vocals.

For a group so often accused of turning every song into a mini-epic, this was a refreshingly low-key moment.

The group did one cover during the show, putting a more organic rock spin on Tears for Fears' 1985 No. 1 hit, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

"It seems pretty appropriate right now," Thomas said.

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Cold * Real World * All I Need * Soul * Disease * Could I Be You * 3 A.M. * Mad Season * Feel * Hand Me Down * If You're Gone (acoustic) * Bright Lights * Bent * Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears for Fears cover) * Unwell * Back 2 Good * Downfall * You're So Real Encore: So Sad So Lonely * Long Day * Push