By Marie Vasari, The Daily News of Los Angeles
Only three things matter when listening to music, matchbox twenty frontman Rob Thomas told a Staples Center audience Saturday on the band's L.A. tour stop. Those things, said Thomas, are "the song, the song, the song."
And on a stripped-down stage with minimal props or theatrics other than video screens behind the band, the modern rock quintet pulled off an energetic, affirmative performance showcasing the emotional and musical range of its songwriting strengths.
Thomas, whose earnest and occasionally anguished confessionals of frailties and flaws are the heart of matchbox twenty, emerged on a dark platform above his bandmates, opening with a fiery version of "Cold." He managed to sustain that fire through a set of nearly two dozen songs, mostly drawn from the band's latest album, "More Than You Think You Are," but including hits from the band's two previous releases and a sprinkling of covers.
That heartfelt delivery shone on a trio of the band's most melodic numbers - on "Hand Me Down," a beautiful, aching song about broken dreams and promises, tender lyrics perfectly accentuated by sweetly haunting, sweeping pedal steel and piano riffs; on "Bright Lights' " lyrical piano intro building into REO Speedwagon crescendos; and nowhere brighter than on the minimalist version of "If You're Gone," with Thomas' mournful, pain-infused vocals almost a cappella, barely accompanied by Kyle Cook's subdued guitar.
The band stepped out of its own footsteps long enough to dedicate a rendition of "Don't Do Me Like That" to a sound tech on his last night with the band before departing for Tom Petty's crew - a sweet gesture, but one flatly expressed - perhaps a thank-you card would have been a better idea musically. Far more successful was the band's first encore number, Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." During the band's delivery of the driving, almost spiritual, up-tempo "Downfall," rapid-fire questions flashed behind the band on the video screens, delving deep: "Are you happy?" "Do you like yourself? " "What are you waiting for?" "What really scares you?" "Are you different when you're alone?" "What do you believe in?" Particularly interesting for a song whose lyrics ("Be my savior, and I'll be your downfall ...") suggest a mixed message of redemption and co-dependent dysfunction.
At one point, Thomas said he's come to understand in his 31 years that there are two types of people in this world - "those who realize we're all just a little (messed) up and stop trying to hide it or be cool," and those still trying to pretend otherwise. "Unwell," he said, goes out to those who can "let your freak flag fly."
Interrupting an extended version of "Long Day" to thank the audience yet again before closing out the show with "Push," Thomas declared, "The only thing that matters is how you spend your time." With musings like that, it's hard not to believe Thomas is a little less bent these days.