Matthew Sweet | Miles Zuniga Blueberry Hill's Duck Room October 16, 2011
Your feelings on the current wave of twenty-years-gone nostalgia could have indicated your level of excitement for this weekend's Matthew Sweet show at Blueberry Hill. Sweet has been touring behind the twentieth anniversary of his breakthrough album Girlfriend, playing it front-to-back while leaving a little space at the end for a few other hits. In a fall that's been largely dominated by Nirvana's Nevermind and, to a lesser extent, the long-awaited DVD release of the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, you could spend all of this month's disposable income reliving 1991. (And, speaking of that doc, how many of you felt like your parents just announced their divorce now that Thurston and Kim have split?)
But Sweet's story is a little different. His critically (and cultishly) adored Girlfriend never had anywhere near the mass impact of Nevermind, nor did it spawn a generation of sound-alikes. It's not a perfect album but a damned great one. His best, most enduring songs are found there. It's been Legacy Edition-ed and adored for years, so it's hard to fault Sweet for revisiting it in full. And judging by the sold-out room (tickets were gone as of a month ago), plenty of people saw reason to celebrate this power-pop gem.
Taking the stage at 10 p.m. with a three-piece backing band, Sweet eschewed hellos and fanfare, launching right into the sharp, twangy hook of "Divine Intervention." Sweet's voice is as strong and, yes, sweet as ever, but it took a minute for the vocal harmonies to kick in. Since Sweet sang every lead and harmony part on disc, it's a quibbling thing to mention that the back-up parts were a little ragged -- anything short of AutoTune would fall short. Guitarist Dennis Taylor had some massive shoes to fill, taking the lead parts originally played by Robert Quine, Television's Robert Lloyd and Sweet himself. He did good work nailing the album's classic-rock tone and its memorable leads, often note-for-note. Drummer Ric Menck, who played on the original album, contributed the appropriate fills in the right place. In lieu of in-the-moment improvisation or feel, we had preordained and meticulous pop music. For a classicist like Sweet, that's pretty apt.
The set's opening one-two-three punch was a foregone conclusion, given the album's front-loaded sequence. After "Divine Intervention," the earnest jangle of "I've Been Waiting" was the hit of the night, and many in the crowd took liberty singing those call-and-response harmonies. "Girlfriend" zoomed along at a similarly sped-up pace; Sweet even mouthed the tossed-off "all right" during the guitar solo, in true keeping with the recorded version. Call it commitment.
Sweet joked that he usually saves those hits for the end of his usual sets, so he had upended the normal order of things. And that's often the trouble with these types of shows -- you know exactly what song is coming next, so it saps some of the anticipatory energy from the live-show experience. After the rushed but brilliant "Evangeline" and the more pensive "Day for Night," the show hit its sagging middle section. Opener Miles Zuniga contributed acoustic guitar for a lifeless "Thought I Knew You" and "You Don't Love Me" lagged in spots too. But the pure pop came back with a force on "I Wanted to Tell You," which sparkles with all of Sweet's calling cards -- stacked harmonies, chiming guitars and relentless hooks.
After the entirety of Girlfriend was through (including the last three tracks, which Sweet called the "bonus cuts"), he and the band closed the set with a soaring "Sick of Myself," from 1995's 100% Fun. The three-song encore bookended by two more classics ("Time Capsule" and the fantastic "We're the Same") with one new one, "She Walks the Night," in the middle. It was the only song from Sweet's just-released Modern Art, and while I wasn't exactly clamoring for a night of brand-new material, it was a little odd that Sweet timed this throwback tour around the release of a new disc that contains plenty of the same power-pop fairy dust that makes Girlfriend so fine. One hopes that Sweet doesn't see himself as a throwback troubadour, resigned to playing his old hits at the expense of his new ones.
Opening act Miles Zuniga represented the other end of the night's nostalgia train. Best known as the guitarist for late-'90s one-hit wonder Fastball, his solo acoustic set had all the charm of a Soulard tarvern bard trying to hold the bar-goers' attention. It turns out that Zuniga didn't sing Fastball's big hit "The Way," so there was nothing but the fading memory of old MTV spins to latch onto. His songs were inoffensive if unremarkable -- closing number "Otra Vez" knicked from both Clapton's "Cocaine" and Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round" in one final act of pandering.
Notes and setlist on the next page
Personal Bias: I've been a fan of Sweet's since I was 13 or so; I recall upgrading my cassette tape of Altered Beast to the CD version, marking the first of many times I have paid twice for the same album on a different format. (And if the merch booth had had a copy of Girlfriend on wax, I probably would have bought that too.)
This show was the perfect complement to last week's Bangles show. Sweet and head Bangle Susanna Hoffs have made two great covers album together and I wished more than once that these shows had overlapped.
Sweet has bulked up considerably since his mid-'90s heyday. Anyone who hasn't put on some pounds since 1991 can cast the first stone. Overheard: "This one could have been left off the album." - during "I Thought I Knew You."
"This is on my wedding night mix." - during "I've Been Waiting." I know a few other couples who have this gem as "their song."
"He even looks like a guy from Fastball." - as Miles Zuniga, shirt artfully unbuttoned, walked past.
The Girlfriend Album 1. Divine Intervention 2. I've Been Waiting 3. Girlfriend 4. Looking at the Sun 5. Winona 6. Evangeline 7. Day for Night 8. Thought I Knew You 9. You Don't Love Me 10. I Wanted to Tell You 11. Don't Go 12. Your Sweet Voice 13. Does She Talk? 14. Holy War 15. Nothing Lasts
16. Sick of Myself
Encore: 17. Time Capsule 18. She Walks the Night 19. We're the Same