Rob Thomas started simply. Clad in a dark T-shirt, jacket and pants, he looked at his Niagara Falls audience and said, “If we do this right, we’re going to leave here tonight and feel like we shared a moment together. That’s what music is all about.”
Two hours later, Thomas’ sold-out crowd departed the Seneca Niagara Events Center with that promise delivered.
Through some two dozen songs and nearly as many stories, they got a glimpse of Rob Thomas, the rock star. They also got Rob Thomas, the modern minstrel. (A little more than a glimpse of that, actually.)
And they got Rob Thomas, your inner conscience. Through his music, the 42-year-old hit-maker touched on marriage, aging, staying humble in the glare of the spotlight, and the value of capturing a memory in an all-too-distracted world.
Thomas, the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty, played an array of hits from his two-decade-old band’s catalog and a variety of his solo work. But absent was the hard-driving bass and percussion of a Matchbox spectacle. This show was acoustic: Thomas and his guitar (and occasionally piano), and two backup musicians playing strings and keys.
Most songs came with a lesson. Before launching into “Her Diamonds,” Thomas paced the stage like a motivational speaker and talked about his 15-year marriage to Marisol Maldonado. The message: A strong marriage isn’t just about solving issues. It’s about listening even when you’re powerless to fix a problem.
Thomas talked about writing with Mick Jagger (“I had sold 20 million albums, but to him that’s just cute”), took the piano to play his ode to Lionel Richie, “Streetcorner Symphony,” and paid tribute to Carlos Santana before launching into a funky jazz version of their joint 1999 hit, “Smooth.”
Though Thomas looks 10 years younger than his age, he joked about his body’s decreasing willingness to party. (Note: In Matchbox’s early days, Thomas was noted for this particular skill.) In “Sunday Morning New York Blue” he sang about the beauty of the sunlight after a long Saturday night. And in “Heaven Help Me” – one of two as yet unreleased songs Thomas previewed in the Falls – he sang about the struggles of late-night socializing when your 40-something body has, as he described it, “a brain that is 21.”
Thomas’ crowd was as varied as his songwriting fodder: 20- and 30-somethings aplenty, many middle-aged couples, and a noticeable contingent of elderly fans too.
Kids were in short supply, but perhaps conveniently. Thomas spotted an 11-year-old sitting upfront with her mom. He joked about his frequent use of the “f-word,” then knelt down to grasp a cellphone and snap a mother-daughter photo. He used the moment to segue into the introduction of his song “Little Wonders,” which became part of the soundtrack for the 2007 Disney film “Meet the Robinsons” and, as Thomas pointed out, scored him “a lot of 9-year-old fans.”
The song, he said, was inspired by a moment with his dog. One rainy night several years ago, two hours after playing a Matchbox Twenty arena show for 20,000 fans, Thomas found himself in the hotel parking lot “trying to get my dog to poop.”
Tired and wet, Thomas was frustrated and wanted to get inside. But then he noticed his dog looking up at him happily – simply because they were out for a walk.
That simple interaction inspired the song about wonders. It also provides a window into good songwriting, an art Thomas mastered so long ago: Music comes from moments – moments we all experience, but ones that only a few among us can bottle up into a song.
Saturday night in the Falls, Thomas uncapped those bottles and poured out the notes – musical notes, and notes on life. The music carried the lessons, but Thomas’ stories opened the audience’s collective mind.