Matt Nathanson Week Retro-Review: Live in Chicago 2011
When I first saw Matt Nathanson in 2011, it was evident he was more than a singer-songwriter, but a top tier performer. His shows weaved music history, comedy, intense personal reflection and some intense arrangements throughout it. It's been nearly eight years and I've never forgotten it. This is one of the best shows I've seen this decade by anyone.
Live at Riviera Theatre - Chicago, IL on October 15th, 2011
In 1993 U2 released a follow-up to their majestic Achtung Baby album; Zooropa. Culled from leftover ideas and riffs they mined in Berlin and Ireland in 1990-91 the band wrote, recorded and released Zooropa during a five month break on the Zoo TV tour. While it has always been viewed as the lesser of the two records, it houses some of U2's richest and most divine songs. No one will ever give Zooropa the credit it deserves but as far as stop-gap albums go, this is one of the most paramount in the rock n' roll canon. Buried on the second side is the album's penultimate track, possibly their greatest and most sobering love song- The First Time. With no drums and the Edge's guitars and Adam Clayton's bass serving only a meditative presence, the greatness of the song comes through in its vocals. It's a song of devotional praise to a loved one who has opened their world in ways unforeseen. Stunningly, aside from snippets on their 1993 tour, U2 didn't perform the song in concert until a pair of shows in Chicago in September 2005. The first night was a straight on rendition that was a bolting blue summer sky and one the second night they weaved it into the middle section of Bad where every lyric was sung heightening the emotional ripples where two of their greatest songs conjoined. Both nights demonstrated a different hue and drew me closer to not just the song but the band as well. In a world littered with wannabe musicians, it is a struggle to find one willing to be as daring as U2 were over those two nights. Inside the Riviera Theatre in Chicago on a temperate fall evening, I once again heard The First Time as it was tied to a song entitled Drop to Hold You and the performer was Matt Nathanson. Like The First Time, Drop to Hold You is also the penultimate track on the alum, Modern Love. Watching the song meld with this U2 touchstone was an intoxicating blend of declaration and adoration. Nathanson's vocals were illuminated in a performance that truly transcended beyond the walls of the theatre. The paradox is that having Drop to Hold You buried at the backend of an album front loaded with supreme pop pleasures, I overlooked it, but the grouping of these two songs together makes me love both all that much more.
I've had the incredible misfortune of missing Nathanson over the last few years but when he made a return visit to Chicago in October, I went without credentials because I had the feeling I needed to be there. Nathanson doesn't merely show up onstage and perform; he takes the audience through a museum of his musical mind. Each and every song is delivered in a resolute defiance making your admiration grow tenfold. Nathanson has a keen ability to bend emotions while liberally borrowing from the eclectic musical past. He'll throw in a cover like I Want Candy before he steps behind the wheel and peels out of the past into the present with Faster, the lead single from his superb 2011 release Modern Love. Something most people don't fully realize is that what made the early Beatles and Rolling Stones records so great was their ability to transform the music they loved into their own. They could turn a song on its head not so much with an inventive new arrangement but with glorious zeal. For over 100-minutes, Matt Nathanson didn't just express himself but let his audience in on the music that helped him through dark days and challenging times. Anyone who follows Nathanson on Twitter knows his diverse tastes with his #morningrecords hash tags and tweets ranging from Leonard Cohen to the hair metal band Faster Pussycat. He wields these influences into something wholly his own. He may write songs about devotion and understanding, but there is an underlying fervor to his own songs.
Modern Love is a valiant and tempting record that captivates but in concert he takes these songs to new heights. Queen of (K)nots and its slap-dash drums pay homage to Tainted Love and Personal Jesus. There were snippets like Dog Days Are Over sung with glee and full on covers of Laid by the Manchester band James and The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel. It's important to note that Nathanson doesn't perform these covers as a means of manipulating his audience or because his songbook is thin. He does it because these songs are every bit a part of who he is as his originals. Those who don't write and perform music don't fully understand the trauma of composing something meaningful and there are days where you feel as if you can't capture the same feeling and emotions as something that had come before. But then there are days where the pen flourishes as they have on the big beat show opener Mercy, the incredibly commercial (in a good way) and poppish Modern Love and even a sequel to Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid, Bottom of the Sea. The encore opener roared with Detroit Waves with a small piece of Firework. He further acknowledged his love for R.E.M. on Answering Machine (This was written during my R.E.M. phase) and was a duet with a few thousand people as the crowd didn't just request the song but carried it to its completion. Wedding Dress is a confessional of love that is so sincere you can't help but be swept up in the feeling of it all as it was highlighted by a magnificent vocal.
The verses of Car Crash were filled with tension followed by a feverish intimacy of the chorus, I want to feel the car crash / I want to feel it capsize. Who else has written a song about such a violent and cataclysmic event where they want to endanger themselves just to feel more alive? Nathanson's vocals are warm and entrancing with him finding a way to induce goose bumps on your back and neck. Watching Nathanson perform Car Crash I felt fully aware and alive as my heart skipped a beat, my eyes swelled and I became dizzy with excitement. Moments like these are rare; where you see a part of yourself and your life on that stage. Rock stars perform taking you away from the world whereas true artists throw you in the deep depths off a bottomless pool of your soul forcing you to take a hard look at your life and what lies ahead of you; Nathanson is one of these artists. The evening's tour de force moment was Room @ the End of the World which builds a romantic universe out of a full blown band arrangement. Nathanson writes magnetic anthems pushing people to better themselves. In a world where celebrity coverage has reached repulsive levels, I can't help but feel that they should be discussing songs like this where in the end, your life is defined by those you share it with. His eyes were closed, his voice delicate and he entered another realm where it was as if he was fighting for his life. With pieces of Melt with You and It's the End of the World As We Know It added onto it, the song took on epic proportions making you fully aware this wasn't a simple pop song but a purging off emotions.
I've always found acts who shun their musical past to be dishonest, but there's no such disdain from He embraces everything he has ever listened to and laces his own music with it. He is a master storyteller who weaves the music he loves with his own, making you love him all that much more. He doesn't come across as some stranger on a stage but as an old friend whom you bond over a love of music. There's a spiritual connection between these classic tracks and the songs he has created from within. Nathanson is someone who loves music with every last bone in his body and it shows on the concert stage. This may seem like an over-the-top and palpable thing to say, but it's not. I can't tell you how many shows I watch where the audience (and the artist at times) has little or no comprehension of the music that has come before. The essence of the human spirit is to develop ourselves, open ourselves to new experiences. The closing number All We Are speaks to this. Before the song he spoke about how our society has put excellence in the backseat while people are more concerned with being on TV than actually contributing to this existence and our world in a positive manner. We've taken out eyes off the road for so long that we've missed out on so much but then you hear a song that reinforces your optimism for the world. On Come On Get Higher Nathanson pulled the crowd closer and like a blooming relationship, you never want to let go. You don't simply listen to his music but feel his words like a whisper in the night between two profoundly close individuals. Listening to the song, it's as if he understands you. Isn't all music about this? There's nothing wrong with going it alone, but when you find someone to share your secrets, dreams, desires and nightmares with it makes feel alive and above all else, opens up words for you. Hearing it is like the first step into a wondrous new chapter in your life. There is a distinct awareness of awakening in his lyrics. So much pop music is about drowning ourselves in the past whereas I feel Nathanson's recent work have been more about coming to terms with the past so we can forge ahead in the future.
As I stood inside the Riviera Theatre I watched Matt Nathanson paint pictures of life that reverberated with a documentary real-life concentration. I couldn't help but discern his greatness. Yes, I used the world greatness because music is about more than hiring a hip producer, looking great in a music video or simply by selling a boatload of records. He has a rich and detailed understand of the history of popular music and knows how it can be mined and then spun on its head to make something that is deeply personal. While others are trying to achieve sales plateaus, Matt Nathanson simply writes deeply personal songs and performs them with astounding conviction in concert. Matt Nathanson has achieved a level of success but he deserves more and more importantly you deserve to experience his music in your life.
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 thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Matt Nathanson Week Retro-Review: Live in Chicago 2011
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