Monday, August 19, 2013

Meeting Matt Nathanson. Twice. Sorta.

I Saw - Matt Nathanson (mp3)

I met Matt Nathanson in a Tower Records in Boston in 2003. I was feeling out of place, a Confederate in King Harvard’s Court, as it were, and Tower was a familiar and welcomed site, the first friend I’d met in this temporary space.

Matt was hanging out in the “Listen to This” sampling stations. He was Disc #3, if I recall correctly, and I knew right away we would be good pals.

The album was Beneath These Fireworks, and it was Nathanson’s major label debut, but he’d cut his teeth the old school way, touring and recording several independent records over the previous decade. By the time he’d honed his schtick -- the schtick of the scrawny, lovelorn and lost 20something white guy, the Anti-Dwayne Johnson -- he, like me, was no longer even 20something.

We both romanticized our younger days in unhealthy ways. The confusion and heartbreak, the aw shucks smile and shrug even in moments when the heart has exploded inside your chest. This twisted wish that we’d been hurt more often, or more deeply, that we wanted more chapters in our life’s YA novel. Or maybe he really was that cool and I'm just projecting. No matter.

Several years and another album later, I got to meet Matt Nathanson again in what had to be one of the five most awkward concerts of his entire life. This pop singer-songwriter, who was clawing his way to the top via songs about love and lust and the ugly and beautiful aftermath of both, was the headliner for a concert in North Georgia.

Matt’s a Yankee California transplant with minimal experience to small-town Southern culture. He’s smart enough to know about Jesus and the South’s odd dysfunctional relationship with the fella, but he was under the impression that all those churches he passed by on every dang block were how we handled the matter. He didn’t realize Jesus lives in our gas stations, our fast food restaurants, and even our amphitheaters.

No alcohol was served at the concert. A huge chunk of the audience arrived in Baptist megachurch busses. Half the audience was under 18, and most of them doe-eyed small-town girls.

And there’s Matt.

He’s up on stage, singing songs about “you and me, yeah oh yeah / tangled in hotel sheets / you wore me out” (“Still,” from Some Mad Hope, a damn fine song). I totally love that song, but all I could think was that the first five rows were filled mostly with girls who (I hoped) still thought sticking a tongue in someone else’s mouth was like flying to the moon. He was seranading girls -- and they were very swooney -- who didn’t quite realize what “Come On Get Higher” was about.

Matt, I imagine, cut his teeth the hard way. Many a night it was him and a guitar, and he had to entertain. If it cost him blood or life expectancy, he had to figure out how to keep those crowds tuned in. So he has a lot of stand up comic stuff going on in his routine. And he knows how to use a killer cover song to hold onto possibly-drifting attention. (Specifically, a "Princess" into "Jessie's Girl" that's nigh-impossible to forget.)

But a lot of his talking revolves around the same subject matter as his songs. Love. Broken hearts. Mind-blowing sexual experiences. Often all wrapped into a single person. And, being a Massachusetts boy, he grew up thinking foul language was just another part of American vocabulary.

None of this went over all that well in North Georgia. He tried to keep his speech clean -- PG-13 at worst -- and he tried not to act or sing “too horny,” whatever that means, but you can’t take the sting out of the scorpion, and you can’t take the horny young male out of the pop troubadour. I thought he put on a helluva show, and I was angered that the crowd couldn’t appreciate him properly.

Matt released his fourth major label album this summer. Last of the Great Pretenders is the second-best album of the lot (Beneath These Fireworks is tough to beat, an album where the similarity between songs is undeniable at times, yet the aura of the collective work just packs such an overwhelming and yearning punch). Maybe I like it because it feels like he’s accepted getting older, as if turning 40 made him realize he needs to write songs about his youth like he’s looking back rather than like he’s holding on with the desperation of a wounded pit bull.

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