Rob Thomas didn't show, but the band rocked

By By CAROL ROBIDOUX Union Leader Staff

MANCHESTER, NH -- There are two lessons -- no, make that three -- learned by Friday night's show at Milly's Tavern featuring The New Left, a side project of matchbox twenty lead guitarist Kyle Cook.

Lesson 1: Don't believe the hype.

Lesson 2: The cult of personality is alive and well and living in Manchester.

Lesson 3: Rob Thomas is OK, but Kyle Cook rocks.

It all started with the pre-event hype, as promoters spread the word that matchbox twenty lead singer Rob Thomas was expected to sit in on a few songs with his band mate at Milly's.

For those who stopped watching MTV sometime after Flock of Seagulls fell from grace, Thomas is a really cute guy who has a certain charisma with the ladies that launched him into the solo spotlight, most significantly with a single, "Smooth," he co-wrote and performed with Carlos Santana back in 1999.

Anyway, the Milly's buzz extended to local newspapers and regional radio programs, reaching Rob Thomas fans from around the Granite State and even south of the border, like Lindy and Michele of Tewksbury, Mass., who came to Milly's early, exclusively to breath the same air as Rob Thomas, and left early, disappointed that he was not coming.

"Is it OK if he's not here? Not really," said Michele, anticipating the worst.

Peter Telge, who brews Mil- ly's signature beers, said at one point Thomas actually was supposed to join Cook on stage for a few songs.

"But the promotions got out of hand, and it was becoming a Rob Thomas moment, and he didn't want to take that away from Kyle, so he decided it was better not to come," Telge said. Too much hype Cook, well aware of the hype, tried to assuage disappointment after taking the stage right around 11:30 p.m.

"We read something that was a little misleading . . . . Rob is not coming tonight. If someone feels they were brought here under false pretenses, well, I'm sure they'll take care of you at the door," said Cook.

The crowd hooted and hollered in support, and nobody -- except maybe Lindy and Michele -- rushed the door.

And from that point, Cook was in charge, rising above the shadow of his other identity -- as backup guy for Rob Thomas -- emerging as singer/songwriter Kyle Cook, a talented front man in his own right, singing with longtime friends and high school chums Eamon Ryland, John Kibler and Brett Borges.

Cook explained before the show that this band really reflects his musical roots, sharing a bond established long before matchbox twenty came together.

"We were together in high school. After graduation, we all pursued different careers. But The New Left maintained contact, even when my focus was on matchbox," Cook said.

"And I want to make it clear, that matchbox twenty is not breaking up. It just seemed like the time for solo projects," Cook said. Just a hiatus Achieving independence without disbanding is a lofty goal plenty of groups strive for, but few really succeed at.

"Being in a band is like being married, only the workplace shouldn't feel like a marriage. We feel like a hiatus will only make us better, more colorful. We'll be more mature after writing with other musicians. It can only add color to your life," Cook said.

The good news is, so far, matchbox twenty has managed to retain its star power over the years, even while pursuing individual creative ventures, Cook said.

This tour, which continued over the weekend to Boston, Long Island and then down the East Coast, is Cook's chance to show his colors. 'That's OK' Milly's crowd -- more than 200 who paid $15 at the door -- was receptive.

Long before it was necessary, a trio of matchbox twenty fans from Nashua had already staked out a prime spot near the front of the stage, ready for whatever came next.

"Well, of course we came to see Rob Thomas," said Leslie Sicurella. "But if he doesn't show? That's OK. We're having a great time."

Her friend Vivian Berrios was intent on collecting drum sticks from all the bands on Friday's bill -- Oddway, Mike Brown and The Sneakies, and Steve Beckett.

So far she had scored big.

"This is great. I'll go home and put dates on them. I have five shoe boxes full of drum sticks at home," said Berrios, a former drummer herself. "My best sticks? From Joan Jett's drummer and the drummer from Four Non Blondes."

Their other friend, Laura Stafford, said the three of them only half-believed the Rob Thomas hype.

"If he comes, he comes. If not, oh well," Stafford said.

They were not disappointed.

The New Left cranked out song after song of hard-driving rock, sometimes sounding Foo Fighters edgy, and other times, like a matchbox twenty tribute band.

But it was all good, based on an unscientific survey of the crowd. Crowd rocked The front-row faithful thrashed their fists to the beat.

Air-guitar guy, standing stage right, mimicked Cook's soaring guitar riffs like a pro.

Picture-phone chick in the back snapped several blurry stills of the band in action.

Another group of Rob Thomas hopefuls -- Deb Hammond, Gwen Sippel and Kristie Godin -- hated to admit they'd come chasing a star, like a cadre of common groupies.

"Don't lie. Tell the truth. You came to see him," said their friend and conscience, Mike Morin.

"OK, so maybe we did come to see Rob Thomas. But know what? This band is really good," said Hammond.

"I think we're gonna buy the CD," said Godin.

"And he's really cute," said Sippel of Cook, who was in the middle of thanking the crowd for making so much joyful noise.

"We're really humbled by the support out here tonight," he said. "Thank you all for coming."