By MICHAEL D. CLARK, The Houston Chronicle
Both matchbox twenty and Sugar Ray enjoyed glorious births in the mid-'90s, becoming standout members of the testosterone-heavy party-band scene that defined the post-grunge era. Eight years later both groups are now going through the veteran rock equivalent of adolescence.
On the Compaq Center stage Friday, they had a coming-of-age that was, at times, sexy and confident. At other turns, however, their performances were pimply and awkward.
A quick scan of the building (plenty of seats were available in the upper deck) made the quandary these bands faced obvious. Staring out at nostalgic thirtysomethings (a few with baby strollers), partying college-age kids and giddy teens, how could anyone please this gathering of generations?
Matchbox twenty decided that the answer is putting their heart on their sleeve, ripping that sleeve off the proverbial shirt and wringing the tears all over the crowd. Lead singer Rob Thomas is a much better singer-songwriter than he once was, but third album More Than You Think You Are leaves him little room to experiment.
Listening to the five-piece backing band (new touring keyboard/guitarist Matt Beck was introduced as being from Houston) wind through the 21-song career-spanning set makes one realize the formula lies not in the singer but in the execution of the songs.
The three-part harmonies of Cold, the Roy Orbison-inspired twang rock of All I Need and the cymbal-bashing hymnal of Soul were all new baited hooks cast at the crowd. By the time the stuttering strings of Disease introduced Thomas' dramatic a cappella bursts, a pattern was developing.
Without fail, drummer Paul Doucette's cymbal-snare swing and Brian Yale's repetitious bass notes were the safe haven on which Thomas builds his hiccuping, over-emoted vocals. The mantra broke only for lead guitarist Kyle Cook to wail away on an electric chord bridge inspired by '70s soul and '80s glam metal.
There were attempts to vary things. Thomas sat at a black baby grand for new album track Could I Be You. Midway through, the ivories were merely a prop as the saunter quickened to marching double-time by bass and electric strings.
It was a near unplugged version of matchbox twenty's 2-year-old smash If You 're Gone that pulled back the monotonous curtain on the rest of the show. Cook and Thomas shared a spotlight for a slowed-down, quiet guitar and vocal duet that had more depth than most of the rest of the night's multilayered attack.
This version of If You're Gone distanced the track from the group's latest single, Unwell, which follows the same time-changing sweep. Drastically changing the arrangement of one helped to strengthen both. Matchbox twenty could use more of that.
Recycling works for three minutes on the radio. Trotted out over two hours on stage, however, recycling is obvious.
Sugar Ray may be over-aged skate punks, but they still know how to party. The group's stage was a Mexican cantina cliche complete with chili-pepper lights for illumination and a sombrero-wearing barkeep mixing margaritas at a center-stage bar.
The group gave equal time to the DJ scratching vinyl on past smash Fly as they did - appropriate for this stage - to the drummer on new single Mr. Bartender (It's So Easy). Lead singer Mark McGrath had the most fun making his neck veins bulge on pre-fame scream Mean Machine, guiding it into a cover of the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop.
His younger female fans, however, howled for the fluttering-eyed, knock-kneed hunk pleading on the structured balladry of When It's Over. He pouted and flirted for them, not realizing that in four short albums he has become the male version of No Doubt's Gwen Stefani.