One good reason to see Matthew Sweet is that his songs are more immediate live than on CD.
By Brett Milano
For those permanently in love with the shimmery attractions of well-crafted power pop, the Matthew Sweet/Tommy Keene (read the Arts Fuse interview with Keene) double bill at the Paradise Saturday was a contender for the show of the summer—especially when the double bill turned into a triple with the brief reappearance of Providence pop combo Velvet Crush.
The latter band had a moment of glory in 1993, when their album Teenage Symphonies to God (title borrowed from Brian Wilson) came out on CBS/Epic; they even got to play the single “Hold Me Up” on the Conan O’Brien show. And they were already connected to both of Saturday’s headliners: Matthew Sweet produced the previous Crush album In the Presence of Greatness (which came out just before his own Girlfriend became a smash), and Tommy Keene became their touring lead guitarist. It also happens that Velvet Crush members Paul Chastain (bass/vocals) and Ric Menck (drums) are now mainstays of Sweet’s touring band. That left only one Velvet Crush member missing, and a phone call brought guitarist Jeffrey Underhill up from Providence.
Keene brought the band on after his solo set, and the reunion lasted for just one song. But “Hold Me Up” remains a heck of a song: Emotive, beautifully sung and instantly memorable, with a chorus hook that won’t go away. Not everyone in the audience recognized the song or the band, but it bought a few shivers to those that did.
People have built houses with lesser songs than “Places That Are Gone,” Tommy Keene’s cult-classic single from 1984. And the song defined an approach that he’s been working successfully ever since: exuberant melodies with a melancholy undertow, yearning vocals with a few hints of snarl. Keene was in a relaxed mood for most of Saturday’s set, making “Places” as haunting as ever and showing he’s still got the knack with the recent “Deep Six Saturday.” And he brought on Sweet’s band for the one cover tune he’s played at virtually every gig over the decades: Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” Always one to appreciate a double edge, Keene turns one of Reed’s darkest songs (about the shock treatment he received as a teenager) into the stuff of classic-rock celebration.
One good reason to see Matthew Sweet is that his songs are more immediate live than on CD. He never made another album that sounded quite like Girlfriend, with its trademark mix of smooth vocals and jagged guitars; instead he got deeper into studio experimentation with each followup. But he strips things back down to strong effect onstage. The two star guitarists who toured with him after Girlfriend, Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd are both gone (Quine is dead and Lloyd is MIA after splitting from Television) but they’re ably replaced by the little-known Dennis Taylor, who solos in a similar loose-cannon manner (Sweet seems to prefer guitarists who don’t make it too pretty). Add in Menck and Chastain and you’ve got a mean little quartet that combines aggression and melody.
Sweet last hit town on an all-Girlfriend 20th anniversary tour two years ago; this time he went further into the catalogue and opened up with a brace of deep cuts (“Time Capsule” and “Byrdgirl,” both came from his most Girlfriend-like album, 2008’s Sunshine Lies); and the recent single “She Walks the Night” was rescued from the album’s dense production. All solid enough, but sometimes you need the hits, and Sweet got to them soon enough: The Neil Young/Crazy Horse homage “You Don’t Love Me,” the soaring “I’ve Been Waiting” (with Keene and Chastain adding the harmonies) and the feedback-heavy “Divine Intervention.” Played to one of those proverbially small but enthused audiences, it started to feel like a night in a friend’s living room, where they always know exactly the right albums to put on.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.