Cloud Control

By Dan Aquilante, The New York Post

THERE was no doubt that Rob Thomas, matchbox twenty's frontman, was walk ing on clouds Wednesday night during his sold-out Irving Plaza concert.

The singer, gone solo for "Something to Be," took the stage, scratched his buzz-cut head, scanned the faces in the packed club and asked, "Anyone read the papers today? Who has the No. 1 record in the country this week?"

A guy at the bar shouted, "You the man," and Thomas agreed, "Yeah, I'm gloating."

His pride translated into such concert confidence that Thomas couldn't make a bad move.

He risked disaster by leading the New York fans on a 10-song tour of his unfamiliar new album and even detoured into lesser-know songs that pre-dated his matchbox tenure.

Thomas pulled it off because, in addition to his surefooted attack and a crackerjack band, his songs follow classic pop forms. They're so catchy that even if you don't know the words at the start, you can sing the chorus by the end.

Thomas also showed stage smarts, connecting with the crowd through eye contact and homey chit-chat. It felt personal even from the back of the club.

He never sounded showbiz phony in his patter. When he introduced his current single, "Lonely No More," his voice got low, as if he were telling a secret: "Some songs I write for my head and some for my heart. I wrote this one for my ass."

He then proved it during the performance of the Latin-tinged pop confection by coming down with a serious case of dance fever that spread to the fans.

Most of the night's material, like "Lonely," was upbeat pop-rock that, surprisingly, didn't recall matchbox as much as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. That was especially apparent in "When the Heartache Ends."

Thomas played just one out-of-character song during his 90-minute set, the slow-tempo ballad "Dear Joan," which he prefaced by saying, "I wrote this when I was very young and angry."

Lyrics like "I can honestly kill you" expressed his rage, yet he sugar-wrapped the hate with a melody so pretty it could have been a bedtime lullaby.

Even when Thomas leads matchbox, he can never resist a few cover songs. Early on, he laid down snippets of Steve Miller's "The Joker" - no doubt just to sing, "I speak of the Pompatus of love."

He later tapped Miller again for "Fly Like an Eagle." But Thomas really hit his stride with the Bill Withers' classic "Ain't No Sunshine," nailing the "I know, I know, I know" repetitions.

The matchbox songbook was off-limits at this gig, so Thomas used his big gun, Grammy winning, ex-No. 1 song "Smooth" - which appeared on Santana's "Supernatural" - as the night's encore.

It was a not-so-subtle reminder that this is a musician who knows the path to the top of the charts.