What Does Matthew Sweet Owe Us?

Nov 21st, 2008 // 19 Comments

You know something’s up when an article titled “The ugly truth: Matthew Sweet draws puny crowd in S.F.” hits Google News. While one man’s irritation with Matthew Sweet’s show in San Francisco last night might not be terribly important, that man’s post does prompt the question of what we should expect from our minor alternative stars of the ’90s.

Not only was the crowd dismal at the Great American Music Hall last night (the author estimates 200 attendees at a venue that holds 600), the show didn’t wow those who decided to attend.

Given that it was just an intimate gathering among friends, it would have been nice to see Sweet cut loose, take some requests, maybe play a few Velvet Crush songs. Instead, he and the band just cranked out the same 13 songs they’ve been playing every night on tour, followed by the same two encores, followed by the same final encore. The evening began slowly with three from Sweet’s hit-and-miss new “Sunshine Lies” disc but peaked halfway through with, naturally, two songs from “Girlfriend”: “I’ve Been Waiting” and the title track.

Sweet’s singing was hampered by a respiratory bug — at one point he said, “I’m dying of pneumonia” — and that condition was all too evident on quieter numbers like “Someone to Pull the Trigger.” The rockers worked better, though the three-guitar/bass/drum attack got old. How ’bout bringing an acoustic guitar or a keyboard or a pedal steel out on the road to mix things up, Matt?

People get sick, so what can you do about that, but despite my undying love for Girlfriend (and even some of his material since), I probably would have felt a little cheated as well by that particular show, although I’m not entirely sure why. Sweet has released seven solo albums since Girlfriend and two other albums with collaborators, but even the tone of this post gives the sense that audiences feel like Sweet is still following up on a breakthrough from 1991. I was pretty psyched about PM Dawn’s debut back then as well, but seeing as they haven’t released much of interest since, if they came chugging through town, I wouldn’t give attending much of a thought.

Sadly, things might have worked out better for Sweet at this point if he would have given up on music for awhile and returned toting Girlfriend as a classic album and playing it from start to finish. Instead, he’s been plugging away since then, with the goodwill of power pop fans in hand, and that sadly brings a diminishing-returns effect–when you’re always around, it hampers the possibility of letting nostalgia kick in among former bands. (Even I have to admit that I would be more excited for a Velvet Crush bill at this point, which seems really unfair to Sweet’s own talent and discography.)

What are these acts supposed to do, then? Get desk jobs for a few years until they’re recognized as forgotten geniuses and can return to big crowds at an All Tomorrow’s Parties-sponsored show? Can Matthew Sweet types make it working smaller clubs instead of theaters?

The ugly truth: Matthew Sweet draws puny crowd in S.F. [A&E Interactive]

  1. Anonymous

    Maybe he’s not shooting for nostalgia, he’s just performing songs he’s written recently like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Fall Out Boy would have done had they never become popular. I think this reviewer’s a turd for expecting some magical evening because the crowd was small and he didn’t like Sweet’s set.

  2. joshservo

    Frankly, I’m more concerned about Sweet’s health at this point. I’m no slim jim myself, but Sweet has let himself go. He’s a big dude. All of his promo pics for this record have been straight up Carnie Wilson-style, hiding behind plants and whatnot.

    When I saw him at Amoeba in LA a few months ago, he barely had the breath to get through a 25 minute set. The fact that he was still in poor voice in SF, but palmed it off on pneumonia makes me worried that there’s a bigger problem at hand.

    Worry-warting aside, the guy still plays a great guitar, and his band is, as always, top notch. I will happily pay my 25 bucks whenever he comes to town to hear the awesome old songs, and the not-as-bad-as-everyone-says-but-still-not-as-good-as-the-awesome-old-songs-songs.

    The “Girlfriend” show would be a hoot, however.

  3. SAShepherd

    Matthew Sweet doesn’t owe me anything, and he’s made that clear (“Write Your Own Song,” anyone?) And, yeah, the reviewer comes off as whiny.

    But, really, if you’re playing in front of 200 people in SF, you’re probably playing to the most die-hard of fans. Sure, play the “Girlfriend” tracks, but mix it up more so that they can talk later about how special the show was.

    Oh, and Dan OTM. Sadly, with every new so-so album he puts out, he makes “Girlfriend” look more like a bolt from the blue than an indication of something special.

    This is from a person who has listened to “Girlfriend” probably more than any other album he’s ever listened to, so take it for what it’s worth.

  4. Anonymous

    ok, like I WAS THERE last night. i have all of his solo albums, but it was my first time seeing him. I didn’t expect much, and he definitely needs to hit the gym and eat healthier, but it was a good show!

    all the new songs came off better than they do on the new record (which suffers from an over stuffed mix and at times subpar vocal overdubs that dont let the songs breathe). but i thought it was honestly a good balance of old and new songs. i mean really, sure girlfriend is his best album, and yes, his more recent albums have not shown much artistic growth, but he’s touring a new record, right?!

    And honestly, he soldiered thru performing while sick like a total pro, i couldn’t discern any vocal shortcomings at all. i mean, maybe an acoustic mini-set would have been nice, but everyone there was dancing and having a good time – except for one guy in front of me with a bored frown and his arms folded the entire time. I figured he was on a date with the super cute azn guy next to him and was dragged along, but maybe…

  5. Todd Patrick

    I was there last night, too, and was both pretty disappointed by the set list and concerned for his health. The sound guy at the Great American Music Hall clearly needed to find another career, as was evident from the opening act, “Death on Two Wheels” (not bad, but not breaking ground by any stretch). “Maybe 200 people” was definitely a generous estimate.

    I expect that when touring to drive interest in a new album, you’re going to get a healthy dose of the fresh tracks. Well-established artists with new material to support typically open with a new song, play some old faves, go into a mini-set of two or three new tracks mid-concert, then some deep cuts, and bring out a new song during an encore along with the crowdpleasers. Conversely, this concert was so heavy on the new album, i.e. not his best work, I was surprised people were enjoying themselves as much as I saw (which wasn’t much except for one couple in their late 40s dead center in front of the stage). It comes off as self-indulgent for an artist to be emphasizing the music that excites them most at the time (naturally, their most recent) in favor of the stuff we came to hear, and for that reason, I felt a little cheated.

    Thing is, we want our heroes to do well. We don’t coordinate schedules or babysitters or whatever to piss on our idols. As part of my reason for going was to support Matthew while he’s clearly struggling physically (and artistically, to lesser degree), I tried to muster some enthusiasm, but found myself breaking for the bar during the second encore for one last chance at enjoyment and to give my ears a rest from the awful soundboard mix. As far to the original question: what does Matthew Sweet owe us? Nothing but to put forth his best effort, for a good show, for a good album, because that is the basis for the trust we place as an audience when we buy tickets to see a performance, or put money down on a record we haven’t heard yet.

    I really wanted this show to be great, and would’ve settled for good. Unfortunately, this one nearly ranks up in terms of expectations vs. delivery with Parliament/Funkadelic in ’99: George Clinton was offstage half the night. Musically, the group was very tight, and I’m definitely going to track down some Velvet Crush this weekend. Again, I’m calling for the person at the soundboard to find other work. And to the old couple up front, please stop reminding us all of the constant march of time.

    @SAS: I disagree totally with your bolt-from-the-blue assessment of his post-Girlfriend work, but rather I found some albums delivered strong pop craftsmanship while the alternates challenged the form. I expected more out of this new album after In Reverse, Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu, and Under The Covers v.1, but maybe it should be allowed time to grow (wow, remember when we did that in exchange for good art?).

  6. Anonymous

    @Todd Patrick: well the set was barely half new songs, and he did play all the hits AND some deeper girlfriend cuts. really what he should have done was just play longer. and c’mon that couple wasn’t that old, considering the strong showing of “dads” in the audience. i dunno, maybe it’s cuz i had lower expectations. i definitely should have dragged my power popping bass player and some of his younger friends…

  7. KikoJones

    One of my all-time favorite concerts was Matthew Sweet at Irving Plaza, NYC, March 25th, 2000. If I recall correctly this was the tour in support of In Reverse, the first of his albums that really didn’t do anything for me. But regardless, I got tickets and brought a date, (who turned out to be-unbeknownst to me-a minor celebrity who got us into the VIP area) and elated from the show rushed out to Queens to play a set with my own band, energized by the stellar performance I’d witnessed earlier.

    But more importantly, and to the point, I’ve always considered that night’s concert as the ideal performance. Why? The band was in top form; the sound was decent; Sweet performed 22 songs (7 from the new album and 15 from his catalog), and we got to hear everything a devoted fan would want to, within reason. (Maybe 5 tunes from In Reverse would’ve been enough, but hey…)

    It saddens me to hear that the recent SF show is a common example of what this tour is like. (Not being thrilled with his latest album and lousy weather kept me from his recent NYC stop.) Someone with a catalog as sizeable as Sweet’s should play longer shows and even mix it up a bit with an acoustic set, as was suggested here. As for the size of the crowd, that’s beyond his control, and if he’s touring without his own soundman, that’s one more thing left to chance. (Then again, the house sound guy has very little excuse for not pulling it off: you work the joint every night, for Pete’s sake!)

    For whatever reason, he chose not to do a 15th anniversary Girlfriend tour two years ago. Maybe it would’ve been more feasible had he gone on hiatus for a while, but Sweet has not been MIA: he’s actually released 3 solo albums of new material this decade, one of which, Kimi Ga Suki, is up there with his very best. (It also features the closest thing to a reunion of the Girlfriend lineup.)

    In the end, while Sweet isn’t likely to pick up any new fans at this point, that sense of resignation shouldn’t extend to taking his followers for granted in any way shape or form. It’s not like he can afford to lose/alienate followers at this stage of his career. There’s nothing wrong with showcasing a good chunk of your new record-that’s why they’re out there touring-but an established artist can’t get away with devoting half the set to it, either. (Having said, the AC/DC model is not a good choice either: Bon Scott-era tunes and Back in Black, plus “For Those About to Rock”, “Thunderstruck” and 2 songs from whatever new album they’ve just released. But maybe that’s EXACTLY what their fans want.)

    As for Sweet’s girth, if it indeed is affecting his health and ability to perform on stage, that is a legitimate concern. Otherwise, let the man be. He’s 44 yrs old, he’s been big for at least a decade now, and not everyone on stage needs to be a stick figure, despite what anyone says.

  8. teknohed

    Back in college, in the mid ninties, the world was a much different place. The Power Macs in the music library were the best “undiscovered” place to surf the then proto-web. You could get an hour all to yourself. Unlike in the real library or the UCEN where you were lucky to get five minutes before the SysAdmin would come on and forcable log you off.

    Anywhoo…It was during this period that I was able to “e-meet” my long time childhood hero Kurt Harland (aka Valaqueen, aka Larsen) the lead singer of Information Society through the quite robust for 1995 website that he maintained for the bands fans.

    During one of our email exchanges he brought up Matthew Sweet. Can’t remember the context. I think it was because Fred Maher the producer of Information Society’s first major label record also worked on Sweet’s Girlfriend.

    Anyway, Kurt talked about hanging out with Matthew Sweet in the studio and playing Turbo Grafx-16 games between takes.

    And so it is that I can never think of Matthew Sweet without thinking about him and Kurt playing Bonk or Lords of Thunder.

    When the heck are they gonna get some Matthew Sweet in Rockband? Or Information Society for that matter…

  9. Anonymous

    @Todd Patrick: On behalf of mid-40 year olds everywhere, I would like to apologize to you for entering your field of vision. We will try to do better in the future.

  10. Todd Patrick

    Sorry to have offended anyone, but for chrissakes, I’m just poking fun at people in my own age group. IMHO too many Bay Area boomers/early X’ers will take any opportunity to pretend they’re 17 again, and fake umbrage if someone points out the obvious. I only mention it because I was one of the “dads” off to the side, realizing how ridiculous it would look if I were to suddenly throw my hands in the ay-er and wave them like I just don’t cay-er. I’m not trying to start a flamewar here, so let’s agree to disagree on whether age-appropriate behavior even belongs as a concept in modern society.

  11. the rich girls are weeping

    @KikoJones: The In Reverse tour was pretty incredible, I saw three or four of the shows and was so, so pleased. I haven’t seen Sweet play live since since he pretty much lost me with The Thorns and the Susanna Hoffs record, etc.

    @SAShepherd: Mr. Sweet’s post-Girlfriend albums aren’t total shite (esp. Millennium Blues, which is fantastic). However, I absolutely cannot vouch for the stuff mentioned above, or his latest efforts…blech. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but it totally bums me out.

  12. SAShepherd

    @the rich girls are weeping, et al.: I like In Reverse a fair amount, so I probably shouldn’t have painted it so negatively; as for the rest, I bought them all, and sold them all, too. They weren’t shite, but they didn’t have enough good songs to convince to keep ‘em.

    “Bolt from the blue” — I didn’t mean this so much as Girlfriend was the only good thing Sweet ever did as I did the album so outstrips his other work, some of which is pretty damn good.

    Stating the obvious here: live shows can make so-so album tracks meaningful. It sounds like the SF show, for various reasons — some Sweet’s fault perhaps, some not — failed in that regard.

  13. breedavies

    I reviewed the Matthew Sweet show in Boulder in October, and I had a similar experience. I don’t care how old you are. If you can’t hack it, don’t do it. No one wants to see you beat your own dead horse, and Sweet was doing just that.

    I didn’t expect to hear just “Girlfriend” and all of my favorites from 100% fun. But I did expect to enjoy a guy who’s voice I used to like, not the unrecognizable, almost anti-social figure I encountered.

    And if you’re so concerned with Sweet’s health (and I’m speaking to the reader above who expressed some worry), I would say it was fairly obvious from the state Sweet was in that it wasn’t just about pneumonia. He needs to take better care of himself period if he wants to continue to tour. His performance suffered greatly at his CO show too, and it wasn’t about a cold. Just because we get older doesn’t mean we have to let go.

  14. MrStarhead

    I’m just shocked that Sweet played multiple encores for a two-thirds empty crowd. Why not just play a long regular set and get the hell out of there, unless he has to take regular breathers?

  15. Dan Corson

    I saw Matthew a couple of weeks back, and there were no problems at all on Matthew’s end. He was in fine voice and very energetic. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. His weight was and is a non-issue. Some people just get big when they get older, and with Matthew, it wasn’t at all sudden. He has gradually gotten bigger throughout the last decade.

    As a side note, I have enjoyed all of his post ‘Girlfriend’ albums more than ‘Girlfriend’ itself. It’s kind of sad that that’s the only album people give a damn about when he has so many others that are just as good/better. But, that is the plight of any popular artist who has such a breakout album.

    It seems that the albums I like the most are always the ones people think of as the best. It never fails with any artist.

  16. wes

    I think this review is very harsh. I like Velvet Crush but Matthew Sweet’s talent and discography leave them in his shadow. I am tired of hearing people say he hasn’t made a good album since Girlfriend. Have the people/critics who keep saying this given a serious listen to Altered Beast, 100% Fun, Sunshine Lies, or Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu? These are all fantastic albums. All were made after Girlfriend. HIs most recent album, Sunshine Lies, is just as strong if not better than Girlfriend. Why do people refuse to see this? Do you want Bob Dylan to only play tracks from Blonde on Blonde and HIghway 61 Revisited in concert? Those are good albums, but let’s be honest, the man has made a lot of great albums since then. Some people/critics get nostalgia overload. Get over it. Girlfriend was a great album but Matthew Sweet has made at least 4 albums since that are just as good if not better. Just because the newer albums didn’t get the airplay of Girlfriend doesn’t mean they are inferior. Come on.

  17. Dude this was sweet but in my case I was so poor they gave me 8 grand.

  18. Kaminomoto

    I savor, result in I found just what I was looking for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

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