Music Reviews

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Staples Center, Los Angeles
Sunday, March 16

Every era seems to have hit-making bands skilled enough with pop-rock hooks and structure to score plenty of radio hits yet have no impact beyond that. Think Huey Lewis and the News in the 1980s. And Matchbox Twenty today.

Nice guys. Nice songs. No edge. No urgency. Sunday's performance at Staples Center was pleasant enough, but in attempting to sustain a two-hour show -- even with its various hits -- the group came off as bland, not bold.

The band's current greatest hits-plus-new tracks "Exile on Mainstream" is a shameless title play on the Rolling Stones' real classic "Exile on Main Street," and sorry, unlike Mick, Keith and company, these guys aren't likely to ever be in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

But to its credit, the group has been around now since the mid-'90s, and even before singer Rob Thomas hooked up with Santana and dabbled in the solo world, the band had amassed an ample catalog of hits. Those numbers, such as "3 a.m." and a nicely rearranged, gentle version of "If You're Gone," were among the many crowd-pleasers for the fans filling the arena, most of who were in their 30s-40s. Thomas didn't overplay the rock star thing either; in fact, he came off more a regular guy fronting his pals.

Themes of romantic fear and emotional sickness surfaced again and again, but there was little depth, just a lot of diary hurt. The band made up for it with bittersweet melodies and mostly compact playing without excess, including short-burst, standard-issue guitar solos and bits of lyrical piano. There was even some energetic bar band rocking on such new songs as the opening "How Far We've Come" and the Motown beat-pushed "I'll Believe You When."

The problem is that while the group understands the trappings, it still generally comes off disconnected from any sense of rock history, even when they pulled out a Beatles-by-way-of-Joe Cocker version of "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window."

Before the new song "These Hard Times," Thomas asked the audience to pull out their cell phones, BlackBerrys and such to hold them high and wave them. He should know better; the audience does that on their own, moved to do so or not all. You don't ask. And the song, whose title could've opened the door to political commentary, turned out to be just a washed-out, vague midtempo ballad.

Matchbox Twenty might be warm and fuzzy, but sparks are few and there's no fire. Second-billed Alanis Morissette, back in the game again, showed more heart in her one-hour spot.

Although immediately tagged as an angry young woman with her 1996 scorned lover rant "You Oughta Know," Morissette soon became the ever-maturing Earth mother all about finding one's personal Zen.

While the mystical psychedelic swirl conjuring moments in her set were more mumbo-jumbo than really deep thinking, the essentially optimistic songs from her "Jagged Little Pill" album debut of a dozen years ago, including "Hand in My Pocket" and "You Learn," still hold up well, and her preview of new material indicates she's still on that path of affirmation.

Her closing number, the semi-whimsical "Ironic," brought the night's truest -- and loudest -- sing-along, nearly all female, shouting out the verses as Morisette rightfully beamed on.

The evening's opener was Mute Math, perhaps best known for last year's electro-voice reworking of the "Transformers" theme for the blockbuster film's soundtrack album.
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