Middle Ground Is 20's Happy Ground

By Martin Johnson, Newsday (New York)

About nine songs into Matchbox Twenty's set at Madison Square Garden Friday, something unexpected happened. The three large video screens behind the band began showing images of Manhattan during "Bright Lights," a song about urban life, and after a few shots of the bridges, the Flatiron and Chrysler buildings came one of the World Trade Center, first in background to the World Financial Center, then full on in several shots. The crowd, which had been enthusiastic all night, erupted. Since Matchbox Twenty's music leans so heavily on earlier influences, it seemed entirely appropriate to present the WTC as an aspect of the city's glorious past rather than as a part of its present conundrum.

Unfortunately, the video was one of the few surprises of the night. Matchbox Twenty's show was as predictable as the dynamics in their songs, which hew closely to the standards of mainstream rock. Not that there's anything wrong with that - Matchbox Twenty seems perfectly comfortable being the rock band of the Norah Jones/John Mayer set.

The band's debut recording, 1996's "Yourself or Someone Like You" (Atlantic), launched with little fanfare, but became ubiquitous on radio and sold more than 10 million copies; the follow-ups, "Mad Season" (Atlantic) and the group's latest, "More Than You Think You Are" (Atlantic), which was released last year, have sold impressively given the music industry's slump.

Matchbox Twenty's success is the latest sign that extremity has become cliche. In contrast to the legion of bands spewing pathos about dysfunction, fronted by girls with green highlights wearing leather bustiers, Matchbox Twenty is comfort food rock. Although he's charismatic, lead singer Rob Thomas could easily be the guy down the block or in a nearby cubicle. In an era when fashion designers sponsor tours, each band member, lead guitarist Kyle Cook, rhythm guitarist Adam Cook, bassist Brian Yale, and drummer Paul Doucette, looked as if he bought his outfit at the Gap. And so did much of the sold-out audience that filled the Garden.

The band opened with "Feel" from its latest recording, followed by "Real World" from its debut and returned to the new disc with "All I Need." These songs won the crowd but it wasn't until its fourth song, "Disease," a hit that Thomas co-wrote with Mick Jagger, that the band sounded comfortable within the space.

From there the show found its groove and it became fun to spot the influences such as Pearl Jam on "You're So Real," R.E.M. on "3 A.M.," elements of Kansas, Foreigner, and U2 came into play in several songs. The band offered two covers, Simple Mind's "Don't You (Forget About Me)" and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." For the band's closing number, "Long Day," Thomas interpolated a verse of Wyclef Jean's "Gone Till November," which was the second surprise of the night.

Fountains of Wayne, the metro-area band led by Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, opened the show with a breakneck run-through of songs mostly from their self-titled debut and the recent "Welcome Interstate Managers" (Virgin). As they rifled through witty numbers such as "Sink to the Bottom" and "Bright Future in Sales" the band offered a compendium of power pop styles and songs with hooks large enough to tow an SUV.