Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Room at the End of the World: Matt Nathanson Live in Grand Rapids, 3/09/12

I bought Some Mad Hope, Matt Nathanson's breakthrough 2007 album, on a class trip in the fall of my junior year of high school. I didn't know much about him or his music, other than that he'd contributed a cover of the James hit "Laid" to the soundtrack of the horrifically bad third American Pie film, but the record had gotten a terrific review from one of the websites I followed heavily at the time, and the opener, "Car Crash," had been a free iTunes single that I'd had in fairly constant rotation in the weeks leading up to the trip. I didn't get to listen until I got home the next night (this being the age of the iPod, I didn't have my good old portable CD player at my disposal), but when I did, I was thrilled with my purchase. Today, Some Mad Hope is one of my favorite records, a killer collection of songs, representing a series of emotional highs and lows for its composer, and building to one of the best back sections of any record that decade. Last year's Modern Love was every bit as good, landing at number eight on my end of the year list and constituting a big part of my summer soundtrack. Before those two records, it had always been said that Nathanson was unable to translate the electricity of his live show into a studio album without losing something in the transfer. Indeed, those earlier records do have the songs (especially Some Mad Hope's predecessor, Beneath These Fireworks), but seemed to be suffocated a bit underneath the slick production. I think he finally figured it out on the last two albums, but beyond those, it's easy to argue 2006's Live at the Point as the best showcase for his talents: an all acoustic setlist that shows off his hilarious stage banter, his palpable rapport with audiences, and his tendency to interpolate bits and pieces of his record collection into his own songs.
All of those things were on clear display last Friday night, from the moment Nathanson took the stage at the sold-out Intersection in Grand Rapids (to the theme of Superman, no less). I've seen Nathanson once before, as the opener for Third Eye Blind at a summer festival back in 2009, but this was the first time I got to see him headline a show, and boy was it a riot. Singer/songwriter (and surprisingly good beat boxer) Rachel Platten opened the show, proving herself the perfect companion to Nathanson in terms of pop hooks, stage presence, and interesting pop covers (though a piano take of Snoop Dogg's "Gin & Juice" was a bit too gimmicky for my taste). Still, Platten played an entertaining set that probably placed her somewhere in the upper echelon of opening acts I've seen (always a pleasant thing to say, since I've seen more than a few trainwrecks), and had me making a note to check out her material.

After taking the stage, Nathanson and his band rocketed into a pair of rockers from Some Mad Hope - "To the Beat of Our Noisy Hearts" and "Gone" - before delving into the record they're actually on tour supporting with the title track off Modern Love. "Run," originally a country-ish duet with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland fame, offered one of the most memorable instances of Nathanson's stage banter. Nathanson noted that he would be delivering both the male and female verses by himself (a curious choice, since he had a more-than-capable female singer sitting backstage), comparing the album version to "playing scrabble" (which quickly became the night's thinly veiled term for "sex"), and the live version to "a game of solitaire" (hint, hint).  As the show was all ages (and since there was at least one very young child in the audience), Nathanson made a laughable attempt to censor his language and the subject material behind the songs (he told brief stories before many of them, often having at least some connection to "playing scrabble"), but it was clear this behavior has become a trademark in Nathanson's shows, and it became a goodhearted running joke of sorts between himself and the audience.

The aforementioned "Laid" provided one of the most enjoyable singalongs of the night, while "Still," which has become a favorite of mine from Some Mad Hope over the years, was a welcome addition to the set. "Detroit Waves" was an obvious tribute to Matt's Michigan surroundings and was elevated by a riveting snippet of U2's "Exit" halfway through. The song, which is one of the darker and more obscure cuts off the band's legendary Joshua Tree album, fit perfectly within Nathanson's own composition and was the first of several terrific little covers to appear in the setlist. That gave way to "Bare" and "Amazing Again," a pair of songs from the older records that were clearly less known amongst the crowd, but no less terrific in execution. "Amazing Again" was particularly notable for featuring best cover moment of the night, in the form of the first verse of "Angels of the Silences" by the Counting Crows. I was hoping this would turn into a more extended cover, but those hopes were cut short as Nathanson returned to the chorus of his own tune a bit too soon for my taste.

Nathanson called "Kiss Quick" his favorite song on Modern Love, something I found a bit surprising, since I felt like the new record generally saw a trade off between higher quality upbeat tracks and less striking slow ones (when compared to Some Mad Hope). The song had some trouble gaining traction in its live setting, and Nathanson seemed to lose the crowd for a few minutes, but he got it back with the song's emotional climax. The catchy riff and the infectious and anthemic chorus of "Car Crash" didn't hurt either. "Crash" has become a live staple in Nathanson's catalog, and for good reason, as it thrived in its live version. An awkward interpolation of Cee-Lo's "Fuck You" hampered the song's effectiveness a bit, but Nathanson redeemed that blunder with a far more fitting tease of Ray LaMontagne's "Jolene," my pick for that songwriter's best work and one of my favorite songs of the last ten years or so. Clearly, Nathanson would be a fun guy to listen to some records with.

Despite a slew of great songs and performances, entertaining moments of crowd banter, and the fun "trainspotting" game to be played with his cover choices, Nathanson saved his aces for the end of the show. The euphoric "Room at the End of the World" was the highlight of Modern Love and one of my four or five favorite songs of last year, and hearing the song's immaculate chorus blaze forth in this environment was every bit as fantastic as I thought it would be. As Nathanson sang that song, I smiled to myself, basking in the moment, but also in the dozens of moments from last summer that it returned me to, and I felt like maybe, despite the bitingly cold temperatures outside that night, summer wasn't so far off: like it was almost in my grasp. "Faster," Love's first single and one of its catchiest numbers (which is saying something for a record that was brimming with irresistible hooks), was a perfect opener in album context, but works almost better in the live one, moved towards the end of the set. Nathanson led the crowd in a synchronized clap that showcased the audience's excellent sense of rhythm (or, in a few cases, lack thereof), before blasting through one of the night's most fun and high energy performances: it was a knock-out. And "All We Are," the lyrically driven closer from Some Mad Hope, provided a gorgeously downbeat and acoustic finale to the main set.

Nathanson's biggest hit, the sugary sweet "Come on Get Higher," also from Some Mad Hope, made its appearance as the penultimate encore number, and encouraged such huge cheers that it was likely a few audience members had come to see that song alone. And it didn't disappoint, proving, much like "Faster," to be one of the most enjoyable singalong songs of the night. Nathanson introduced his band and bid us farewell before retreating from the front of the stage, preparing their final (and their greatest) song of the night. Near-silence filled the venue for a moment as the band took up their instruments one last time. And then, just as I was wondering if we were going to get another song or not, the room exploded into the intro to "Wedding Dress," arguably Nathanson's most emotionally draining and most viscerally moving song to date. The volume indicated that the band may have turned the amps up to 11 for the finale, but the sound was pristine and clear, and by the time the song hit its cigarette-lighter-waving chorus, I was absorbed, belting along at the top of my lungs. Despite the fact that I had pretty much shredded my voice from shouting along with these songs all night, I couldn't help but join in with this one, and it was one of the more powerful moments I've witnessed in concert. "Wedding Dress" is a shattering depiction of a marriage that, for whatever reason, isn't going to work out; indeed, most of Some Mad Hope is about picking up the pieces of broken relationships, even if it doesn't quite seem that way on the surface. I've always loved that song, but I've also thought that there was something missing from the studio version: something about the production or the arrangement feels thin, and the fade-out leaves it feeling unfinished (does the fade-out technique ever work?). That night, though, as the band played their hearts out and left every bit of themselves onstage or ringing out over the crowd, the song was elevated to new heights; hearing Matt sing those lines with a voice that was starting to break from fatigue was nothing short of chilling. And even though I felt beat up, hungover, and vocally dead the next day (all of this was curious, since I hadn't had a single drop of alcohol), that moment and many more made it all more than worth it. Nathanson is a real talent, both as a performer and as an album maker, and I just hope that, this time, he doesn't take four years to make a new album again.
1. To the Beat of Our Noisy Hearts
2. Gone
3. Modern Love
4. Run
5. Queen of (K)nots
6. Laid (James cover)
7. Still 
8. Detroit Waves -> Exit (U2 snippet)
9. Bare
10. Amazing Again -> Angels of the Silences (Counting Crows snippet)
11. Kiss Quick
12. Car Crash -> Fuck You/Jolene (Cee Lo and Ray LaMontagne snippets)
13. Room at the End of the World -> (Tributes to Davy Jones and Whitney Houston)
14. Faster
15. All We Are
16. Come on Get Higher
17. Wedding Dress


  1. Matt to a 'T'. Can't wait for Saturday in Omaha to see him for the 7th time!

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  3. His last gig in Portland was brilliant. Will see him again.

  4. Such brilliant writing, I got goosebumps reading when you said he played "Wedding Dress" - brought me back to one of his concerts. Love it.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate it! "Wedding Dress" really is incredible live.

  5. I have seen Matt 8 times, and he kills it every single time. There is a moment in every show, no matter how many times I have seen him play, when it hits me just how utterly amazing he is, and I fall in love all over again. I think I have seen Wedding Dress performed 6 or 7 times, and it is always an emotional experience. I think it is also important to point out how much he truly appreciates his fans, and it never feels fake. I just saw him 2 weeks ago in NJ, and as soon as it was over, I wished I had tickets to the next show. He just has that effect on you...

    1. There are a lot of artists that I see live and enjoy a lot, but their shows lack that "moment." I've seen Butch Walker as many times as you've seen Nathanson, and he certainly has the ability to conjure up those moments, but so does Matt. One second, he'll have you laughing, and then he'll just knock you down with something like "Wedding Dress." He's just absolutely genuine and honest, and I love how much he appreciates his fans (from the frequent blog posts, to the record picks of the day he was doing for awhile, all the way to sharing my review on his wall). It's great to see a guy like that have the kind of success he's been having lately.

  6. Wow ..... amazing !!!!! I haven't seen him in concert yet, but from listening to his music and keeping up on reading his blog posts, it has been on my mind to get to a concert of his someday. BUT, after reading your review, which made me feel as if I was actually there, I WILL DEFINITELY make sure I see him soon!!! Excellent writing, so on the money!!! Thanks!

    1. Thank you! Obviously, I recommend seeing him live, whether it's as a headliner or an opener.

  7. I love your review! I saw Matt and the band at The House of Blues in Boston and the Portland show and loved both. But reading your review just brought it all rushing back for me. Thanks! I agree that it's great to see someone humble and talented do well.

    1. Thanks a lot for reading. I'm hoping I can see him again before he makes another record, but we'll see.

  8. Sigh.
    I saw Matt in Buffalo, NY recently as a headliner and Albany, NY as an opening act. He kills me. KILLS ME. He's, by far, my favorite artist. And you're soooo right. He'll make you laugh, then he'll just RIP your guts out. GOD, I was a wreck at the end of the Buffalo show and THEN I met him! He's really one of the sweetest and most genuine person I've ever met. This guy values his fans and LOVES music to his core. It shows in every show. I'm so bummed I missed him headlining in Rochester this month.
    If you haven't seen him--GO. He's awesome as an opening act, and transcendent as a headliner.

    1. Would have loved to meet him. Matt seems like the kind of guy I'd want at my "celebrity dinner party" or something, especially if he brought his records.

  9. Matt pours every ounce of passion he has into his music and it deffinately shows in his performances. He has some sort of for lack of a better word, distaste for his older '90's albums. And though yeah, perhaps they aren't as advanced as the last ones, I find that I enjoy them just as much. I had the honor of meeting Matt at one of his shows and he is as down to earth as they get. I aswell hope its not a long wait for his next record because I cannot get enough. Hands down the best artist I've ever come across.