Energized matchbox twenty still burning

By Gemma Tarlach, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)

Rob Thomas is not unwell.

Contrary to the singer's assertion in matchbox twenty's most recent radio hit, Thomas and his band mates are not only hale and hearty but apparently energized by the opportunity to translate their third album to the live setting.

At the U.S. Cellular Arena Saturday evening, the matchbox men put on a marathon two-hour set that drew heavily from 2002's "More Than You Think You Are" but also reached back -- way back.

Aside from playing nearly half of its 1996 debut disc, including final encore "Push," matchbox twenty rolled out a cover of Wings' "Jet."

"Bright Lights," one of the group's newer songs, came off like a lost Elton John tune -- a testament to both Thomas' songwriting prowess and affinity for the music of the decade he spent in short pants.

Thomas shared songwriting duties with his band mates for the first time on "More Than," one reason perhaps why the band seemed so enthusiastic before the respectably sized crowd that was still a couple thousand seats short of a sellout.

Radio hits from "More Than" in Saturday's set list -- "Unwell," "Cold" and "Disease" -- follow the classic matchbox formula of angsty self-consciousness set to anthemic pop-rock. But the lesser-known new tunes, notably "Soul," "Downfall" and "You're So Real," reveal a more raw and possibly more heartfelt matchbox. A special treat: the raucous cowpoke punk of "So Sad So Lonely," performed as the first song of an encore hat trick.

Even older songs sounded fresh. The monster hit "If You're Gone" was pared down and performed by Thomas and guitarist Kyle Cook alone on stage -- an arguable improvement over the fussy studio version on "Mad Season."

Sugar Ray has evolved over the years from a generic SoCal funky-punky-metal bunch to a sort of bratty Gen X Jimmy Buffett, complete with tropical beach resort stage dressing. The easy, breezy pop hits -- "Fly," "Every Morning," "When It's Over" -- go down as smooth as the drinks served to band members by the onstage bartender.

Front man Mark McGrath mugged shamelessly, mocking everyone from '80s metal guitarists to the evening's headliners, but also took a moment to thank the production crew and security detail -- a nice nod to the industry's most overlooked folks -- as well as the American military.

Energetic and entertaining throughout its 50-minute set, Sugar Ray's finest moment was perhaps dedicating "Mean Machine" to the late Joey and Dee Dee Ramone -- and then barreling into "Blitzkrieg Bop" midway through, doing justice to the pioneer punks' legacy.