Nathanson and Tap gave their all performing nearly two-dozen songs stretching back more than two-decades to sample forbidden fruit that made the crowd nothing short of rapturous. Shifting from acoustic to electric guitars and a piano, the show was framed by several watershed moments. With every album and tour it becomes a challenge to craft a set list that speaks to every fan, but his current tour is possibly the best representation of his catalog. There is an air of innocence to the material that was stirring which included sing-a-longs to early favorites "Pretty the World", "Suspended" and "Answering Machine". These songs blossomed with Tap and Nathanson trading licks and harmonies, revealing new shades and hues on these deep cuts. Many only know Nathanson from Some Mad Hopeforward, but this current tour brought his earlier material back into focus revealing that he has a army of great songs that pre-date his commercial breakthrough.
Nathanson was in good spirits throughout the show and anyone who has seen him live knows his in-between song banter is as golden as his music. Taking a page from Elvis Costello, the show features a spinning wheel with themes and songs. A handful of times during the show, Nathanson would spin the wheel and wherever it landed, that's what he would perform. While the wheel had specific songs like Costello's "Spectacular Spinning Songbook", Nathanson also included broader themes such as "Songs You Hear At Whole Foods", "Hits", "High School" and "12-String". The spontaneous nature of the wheel makes every show unique and Chicago was rewarded with some gems and rarities including the hushed "Then I'll Be Smiling", the sobering "Bulletproof Weeks" and the seductive "Kill the Lights". When the wheel hit "12-String" towards the end of the set, he pulled out "Bent", an unheralded classic from 2003's Beneath These Fireworks which featured a spellbinding tag of "Anna Begins" by the Counting Crows at the end. These are stories of heartbreak, the eternal search for love and the messiness that comes with it all.
The intimate nature of this tour is allowing Nathanson to flex his musical muscles and dig into the crevices of his catalog, which was utterly wonderful to watch unfold. He's affording the audience a dream show as he weaves these songs seamlessly with his more popular songs. Nathanson and Tap triggered cold fury on a combustive "Detroit Waves" while "Bulletproof Weeks" had all the intimacy and intensity of the naked album version. His Gretsch guitar channeled blues propulsion on "Mine", "Long Distance Runer" and the yearning "Used To Be". Every cut from Sings His Sad Heart glistened in the small venue where you could hear a pin drop from the crowd on the soulful "Way Way Back".
Show Me Your Fangs is an underrated album but it's highlighted by arguably the three best songs Nathanson has ever written. "Bill Murray" is about a imaginary friendship with Murray serving up slices of sage wisdom to his friend as they travel the world while pulling back the curtain on the answers to life. The pensive piano ballad is a meloncholly masterwork and a show highlight, done specifically for Chicago, Murray's hometown.
He began the show speaking how he wanted to write uplifting anthems on this new album that ultimately morphed into a collection of songs about heartbreak and abandonment. However, in concert, the show was bookended by a pair of songs christened with empowerment. "Headphones", opened the show and as Nathanson and Tap performed, many in the audience sat with their eyes closed taking in the song, and despite the minimal instrumentation, they sounded like a rock orchestra hitting all the night emotional chords. Their impassioned harmonies left the audience emotionally bare setting the stage for the entire evening.
Towards the end of the set, Nathanson strummed Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" before seguing into "Giants", his most inspiring song about the extraordinary nature of humans. Despite the world championing cruelty at this moment in time, it's important to remember what we are capable of empathy, compassion and creativity. The recorded version is a triumph of soul infused rock, but on this tour, it's stripped back to Paul Simon meditation. "Giants" moves beyond its words into a realm of impossible dimensions that is a gospel of empowerment and a psalm of hope. Nathanson may not realize it, but these bookends of "Headphones" and "Giants" are anthems for the anguished. They're answered prayers delivered as Sunday morning testimonials that bring us closer to the light. He's taken his listeners through unspeakable horrors and has found a way to make them whole again.
In a world consumed by darkness and depravity, the music of Matt Nathanson serves as a tidal wave of renewal. He has crafted dozens of anthems and anecdotes that his audience carry with them every day on their journey. Sings His Sad Heart is a record born out of abandonment, but his concerts balance the late night desperation with early morning renewal with "Giants" and "Come On Get Higher" welcoming the beams of light into our lives.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Matt Nathanson Week: Antidotes and Anthems
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