Matchbox Twenty still knows how to light up a stage

By Erik Spanberg, Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Several songs into a 90-minute set before an enthusiastic crowd at the Bi-Lo Center here, Rob Thomas, the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty, delivers an earnest welcome.

"Friday night is a very valuable night - there are a lot of other things you could be doing - so thank y'all for coming out to see us," he says, sporting wide-bottomed jeans. "We will do our best to try and make it worth your while."

Fans don't get the voyeuristic brush with danger or excess from Matchbox Twenty that so many rock groups have used to sell concert tickets and T-shirts. Instead of a volatile Axl Rose or a cusp-of-the-crypt Keith Richards, Thomas and crew offer workaday attitudes and expertly crafted songs that rattle in your head like the friendliest of jingles. But in a good way.

With Thomas's grateful acknowledgment complete, the band resumes tearing through a set filled with radio-tested hits, a few ballads, and a surprisingly spry version of "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young. A stripped-down arrangement on the moody, mid-tempo former hit "If You're Gone" proves the sturdy skills behind the band's humility: It's hard to write songs that sound this easy.

The formula of built-in familiarity - and breezy titles such as "Real World," "Long Day," and "Push" - make the melodies familiar and the song titles fuzzy. Watching Matchbox Twenty on stage, you find yourself joining the singalong well before remembering which song is which.

Such accessibility has made the band a critical punching-bag, often deemed vanilla, bland, and safe. With the slightly amped-up "More Than You Think You Are," Matchbox Twenty has elicited a bit of grudging respect.

Friday night's performance marks the second date of an American tour running through the end of the year. According to trade publication Pollstar, Matchbox Twenty's initial, 10-week US trek in late spring and early summer generated $ 12.2 million in ticket sales and ranked among the top 20 tours for the first half of 2003.

"That bodes well for them," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor at Pollstar. "They are doing the right thing by going out and touring a lot. That's how you establish yourself for the long term, by having that direct contact with your fans."

Thomas and the rest of the Matchboxers - lead guitarist Kyle Cook, drummer Paul Doucette, bassist Brian Yale, and rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor - are among the handful of young pop acts faring well on the road. Most of the industry leaders are long-in-the-tooth veterans: Cher, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, and Elton John.

In South Carolina, Matchbox Twenty performs on a spare stage augmented by a few moving panels of lights and the occasional backing-video snippet. Thomas, the collaborator who powered Carlos Santana's 1999 comeback, is anything but smooth onstage. He clings to his microphone stand and, when not singing, he awkwardly hops about and nervously taps out the beat on his thighs.

They deliver a blossoming catalog of pop confections with skill - and minimal tinkering. Phish would be horrified: Jams and extended solos are verboten, though Cook, in particular, adds a dollop of showmanship to his lean guitar leads.

The band's brand of muscular pop is not in season, yet Matchbox Twenty thrives. Consider "Unwell," the second single from More Than You Think You Are. Stocked with more hooks than a Mississippi catfish pond, as well as an infectious chorus and accents of banjo plucking, "Unwell" dominated airwaves at various radio formats throughout the summer and into early fall. For many weeks, the single was the lone rock entry in the Billboard top 10, dominated by rap and R&B.

"For an act like Matchbox Twenty, every time you come out with something new, it's going to be a battle at radio," says Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research, a consultant to radio and TV stations. "People didn't know if they might have the same problems that the Goo Goo Dolls, for example, now have. But 'Unwell' has answered that."

Ross and other industry experts anti-cipate at least one more successful single from "More Than You Think You Are," which has sold more than 1 million copies in the US.

"Bright Lights," a piano-pounding tale of big-city awe, begun its climb while waiting for the ineffably sunny "Unwell" to make way.

"Rob Thomas has a skill of writing these catchy songs, and his vocals and everything else come together," says John Reynolds, operations manager at WNKS-FM, an adult contemporary-hits station in Charlotte, N.C. "There's that little secret that makes those records work. Their track record shows that."