Matt Nathanson exudes the kind of charisma and love for his music many artists would envy. While his songs lean toward “Wal-Mart pop” and quite frequently tend to go overboard with clichés, his unwavering confidence and belief in his own music saves him from half-hearted ridicule. His recent extended show at Chicago’s House of Blues proved the unflappability he has for his own songs. Currently on tour promoting his sixth record, Some Mad Hope, released in 2007, Matt played about only half the songs from the album, commenting, “For some reason, we’re playing all the weird stuff tonight.”
Nathanson, at first, did focus on his lesser-known material, with occasional interjections of more recognizable songs like “Laid,” which made it to the silver screen for the movie, American Wedding. He has had a stream of success through the tube, and his publicists undoubtedly understand the best avenue of attracting teenagers to whom he most appeals is by first featuring his music through shows like One Tree Hill and Scrubs. But part of Nathanson’s appeal is that he does understand his audience. Late in the set he played “Answering Machine,” prefacing the song by saying, “I’m sure most of you were probably not born before 1983 and have never even seen an answering machine.”
This being said, I’m surprised that Nathanson hasn’t hit it big yet. Or, rather, hit it bigger yet. He only recently made it to the airwaves with “Come On Get Higher.”
Nathanson truly belongs on stage. He loves to perform, not only his music (and plenty of covers, too) but simply being up front. He’s a mixture of a self-deprecating comedian, pop musician, and stage actor. He rarely segued from one song into the next, and instead spoke directly to the audience. “We wrote these [songs] specially for you all in Chicago,” he said jokingly. “We love it here; that’s why we’re playing two nights. We’re not playing two nights anywhere else [on this tour].”
Nathanson has mastered the art of the sing-along, something many musicians seem to be leaning away from. Though, perhaps he relied too much on the audience’s willingness to sing to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” By the fourth sing-along, I was beat and reluctant to participate. But Nathanson cleverly used the sing-along technique to rope the audience back in. After several slow songs, many people — especially those furthest from the stage — lost interest and resorted to idle chatter. An audience competition would surely set the mood right, especially when everyone recognized the opening chords of a-ha’s “Take On Me.”
At one point, the band members left the stage for a brief break while Matt played a few acoustic songs. When they returned they were jokingly wearing white towels wrapped around their waists, worn to give the impression that they were naked underneath. Nathanson himself seemed more amused than anyone, audience included — we were simply confused — and the other guys just seemed reluctant to play along, as if this wasn’t their idea in the first place. While this bizarre scene was fleeting, it epitomized the evening: the band didn’t seem all that into what they were doing, i.e., playing, especially in comparison to Matt’s enthusiasm. Throughout the entire night, they seemed bored at best.
If Nathanson hadn’t won the audience over with his humor or carefully picked cover songs, he captured even the most jaded listener by saying, “This is going to be our fake-last song. You know what I mean, when we pretend it’s our last, but really it’s not, and then we walk off stage, and you clap and cheer, and by your cheering you believe that you really brought us back on stage to do more songs. So this is our fake-last song.”