Neither great nor awful


March 4, 2001




There's a joke among rock critics that when a band prompts you for an analysis and you have no opinion but you don't want to offend, you can always say, "You guys were tight."

If the group persists, begging for more, the cornered critic can add, "You guys were on stage, and you played!," feigning enthusiasm as if that empty sentence actually meant something.

Well, the ever-so-tight matchbox twenty was on stage during a sold-out show at the Allstate Arena on Friday, and it played!

Despite sales of 10 million copies for its debut album, "Yourself Or Someone Like You," and a sophomore effort, "The Mad Season," that is well on its way to matching that accomplishment, the Orlando, Fla., quintet is essentially a cipher--neither electrifying enough to prompt torrents of excited prose, nor bad enough to work up a good head of steam for a solid critical drubbing.

The jangling rhythm guitars, gently swaying grooves, ultra-earnest romantic sentiments and frontman Rob Thomas' sincere and just a little gravelly vocals combine to remind listeners of something they've heard before but can't quite place.

R.E.M. on a very bad day? Sort of. Hootie and the Blowfish with more rock and less soul? Kind of. Late era Paul McCartney doing his best to imitate Pearl Jam? Maybe. But even these tortured attempts at analogies are more interesting and complex than matchbox twenty was during its overly generous two-hour set.

The young, well-scrubbed and predominantly female audience shrieked and squealed whenever the poet shirt-wearing Thomas approached the wings of the stage or sat down sensitive artist-style at his grand piano. They also sang along to every word of tracks like "3 a.m.," "Bent" and "Last Beautiful Girl," as banal and unmemorable as those words may be.

It would be wrong to scoff at this, because there is just enough of a glimmer of something in matchbox twenty's vanilla balladry to understand its appeal.

Still, one suspects that the enthusiastic embrace of Thomas and his bandmates is largely the success of marketing over music--if the band weren't ubiquitous on alternative-rock radio and MTV, it would probably be playing at the Elbo Room. And if any of these fans bothered to dig a bit to hear R.E.M., McCartney or Pearl Jam at their best, matchbox twenty would be left in the dust faster than yesterday's Hootie hits.

The task with middle of the bill openers Everclear is much easier: Here is a band that knows how to rock with punk fervor (as on its earlier recordings or in a small club setting) but is so greedy for platinum rock-star acclaim that it has watered down its sound to create MTV-friendly novelty hits, and it leaves no arena-rock cliche untouched when delivering them on stage.