The song is 'Unwell,' but the band's feeling swell

by John Soeder, Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic

CONCERT PREVIEW Matchbox Twenty When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Gund Arena, East Sixth Street and Huron Road, Cleveland.

Tickets: $35-$45 at the box office and Ticketmaster outlets, or charge by phone, 216-241-5555 (Cleveland) or 330-945-9400 (Akron).

Openers: Sugar Ray and Maroon 5.

Between the leadoff single "Disease" and the follow-up hit "Unwell," maybe the new Matchbox Twenty album should've been titled "Is There a Doctor in the House?"

"There's a song on there called 'Cold,' too, but none of it was intentional," said lead singer Rob Thomas.

He jokingly referred to the pop-rock quintet's latest release, "More Than You Think You Are," as "our hospital record." No, he wasn't actually ill during the recording sessions.

"When you make a record, you start with 20-some songs," said Thomas, 31. "Then you narrow them down until only the best ones are left. It just so happens a few of them had these weird titles having to do with illness.

"But it's a positive record," he said, laughing.

Thomas and his bandmates - guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, bass player Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette - perform Tuesday at Gund Arena.

Their latest smash, the twangy "Unwell," is in heavy rotation on adult-contemporary radio stations.

"I had the chorus first - I'm not crazy / I'm just a little unwell," said Thomas, the group's principal songwriter and an aw-shucks superstar. Speaking by phone from his home in Westchester County, N.Y., he oozed affability.

"Unwell" is about "having a despondent relationship with yourself," he said. "In the end, it's a positive song, because you come to terms with the fact you're not crazy."

On "More Than You Think You Are," Matchbox Twenty gets back to pop-rock basics with a stripped-down sound.

"When we did the last record [2000's 'Mad Season'], we put everything we could on it - keyboard sounds, orchestras, whatever came to mind," Thomas said. "When we played it live, we loved the sound so much better. So when we made this record, we wanted it to be more live-sounding."

He co-wrote "Disease" with Mick Jagger, who contributed the lines: You drove me to the fire / And left me there to burn. Thomas came up with a nice turn of phrase, too: You left a stain on every one of my good days.

The infectious song originally was slated for Jagger's 2001 solo album, "Goddess in the Doorway." Thomas had a hand in writing the opening track, "Visions of Paradise." At the last minute, Jagger decided "Disease" was better suited for Matchbox Twenty, Thomas said.

No stranger to high-profile collaborations, he teamed up with Carlos Santana for the latter's Grammy-winning hit "Smooth" and contributed three tunes to Willie Nelson's last studio effort.

So was hooking up with Mr. Rolling Stone intimidating for Thomas?

"Sure!" he said. "It's your link to being 16 years old, as long as you still get so excited. Hopefully, I'll never get over it.

"Carlos is a very spiritual person. Willie, to me, is spiritual about his music. I wasn't sure about Mick, because he wears so many different hats - his business hat, his creative-writing hat, his frontman hat, his legend hat.

"But after 10 minutes, he made me feel at ease. He was so into songwriting."

In the time it takes to finish reading this sentence, the prolific Thomas probably will have dashed off another hit with someone else. Before Matchbox Twenty hit the road last week, he got together with Enrique Iglesias.

"He's a really nice guy," Thomas said. "We hung out, and it was like, 'Yeah, I'd love to do something with you.' We just finished writing a song called 'Real.' It's great. . . . It might wind up on his next record, which would be cool."

The members of Matchbox Twenty came together in Orlando, Fla., in the mid-'90s. Thomas had left home when he was 17 to become a vagabond musician. In a 1998 interview with The Plain Dealer, he described himself as "a vampire gypsy."

How does he see himself these days?

"I definitely don't feel like a vampire gypsy anymore," he said. "Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur, because of the kind of music we make."

"More Than You Think You Are" has a bit of a '70s vibe "because of the instrumentation we used - guitar, bass, some old organ," Thomas said.

"When The Police first came out, or U2 or the Grateful Dead, all those bands, they didn't really break until later," he said. "They didn't break into the mainstream until they had three or four records out. These days, you just don't have those opportunities.

"We were lucky because our first record was so successful, which allowed us to make the second record, get more comfortable in our own skin and then make this record."

Matchbox Twenty's 1996 debut, "Yourself or Someone Like You," sold 12 million copies, spurred by the unavoidable hits "Push," "3 A.M." and "Real World."

The group is on tour through the end of the year, then Thomas hopes to do a solo album.

"I'm really excited about a couple of the songs I've written," he said. "You can't hold back good songs.

"If you're making a Matchbox Twenty record or a solo record, it's just more honest if you put on the best songs you have, then you go write a new batch. I'm in the middle of writing more songs now."

Doucette also is recording a solo project. And Cook is readying an album with his sideline band, the New Left.

Thomas said some of his famous friends might lend a hand on his solo outing.

"Carlos has offered me himself and his entire band for a couple of tracks, which would be great," he said. "It's a helluva backing band.

"I'd love to do something else with Willie, too. Just hanging out with him is a blast."

There's no telling who else might end up on the guest list, provided Thomas can work up the nerve to follow up on some offers.

"I ran into Don Henley once," he said. "He said he'd love to write a song with me for my solo record. He told me to give him a call.

"You meet people, and everybody is like, 'Yeah, give me a call.' Then six months down the road, you're like, 'Well, do I really call this guy? Does Don Henley really want me to call him?' I don't know."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4562