Friday, November 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Rob Thomas reflects on Florida roots, Matchbox Twenty's 20th anniversary

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Lest you forget Rob Thomas is a Florida Man — one of Florida's most successful men, in fact, when it comes to writing pop songs — he's happy to name-drop a few local landmarks.

"We had a local band called Tabitha's Secret that used to play all throughout the Southeast, so we would go and play Skipper's Smokehouse and the State Theatre when they would do a bunch of bands on the bill," the songwriter and singer for Matchbox Twenty said by phone from the New York City suburbs. "That was just where you went to play. That was when bands like Halcyon were still around, and Big White Undies and the Beat Me Ups and bands like that."

Thomas has come a long way since sharing stages with Big White Undies. This fall marks the 20th anniversary of Matchbox Twenty's Yourself or Someone Like You, the blockbuster debut that featured hits Push and 3 A.M., and set Thomas on a path to songwriting superstardom.

Three Grammys and millions of albums sold later, Thomas will be back in Central Florida on Saturday, performing with Counting Crows at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. While he's here, he'll catch up with family and reminisce about moving from South Carolina to Sarasota in middle school and forming Matchbox Twenty in Orlando.

"We created this kind of vibe amongst ourselves," he said. "There were a lot of bands that were all kind of helping each other out, doing shows where there are six bands, and the only people there to watch the show are the other bands that are playing."

On the surface, Matchbox Twenty was the perfect Orlando band: accessible, inoffensive, vanilla to the point of banality. That's an oversimplification, of course — Orlando has vibrant, gritty nooks, and Thomas and Matchbox Twenty wrote better songs than most critics gave them credit for — but Thomas understands the greater point.

"I think there was a good scene, but I'm not so sure that it was defined geographically by where we were," he said. "There doesn't seem to be a discernible Orlando culture, as it were, in the sense that maybe you would find in, say, Miami. Miami has its own flavor, and you know what it is. In some ways, St. Augustine kind of has that. We were pretty insulated."

When Yourself or Someone Like You came out, critics called out the band's unabashedly mainstream sound, often comparing the band to Thomas' current tourmates, Counting Crows.

"I remember there was an article somebody had written, a review of the record, and it said we sound like a band that spends all of our time standing in front of the mirror going, 'No, no, no, let me be Adam Duritz next,' " he said with a huge laugh. "At least it was clever."

Now that he and Duritz are friends, he doesn't mind the comparison.

"At the end of the day, all you're talking about is a certain sensibility," he said. "Adam's just a songwriter. I don't think there's any other agenda. He's not trying to appeal to any certain disenfranchised group; it's not some giant political statement. It's just a bunch of words about emotions, and interactions with people, and how those interactions make people feel and react."

As the hits kept piling up for Matchbox Twenty — Bent, Unwell, If You're Gone — Thomas launched a successful solo career, which spawned several hits, including Smooth with Carlos Santana, and three Top 10 albums, including 2015's The Great Unknown.

The Great Unknown is an unabashed pop album, "more of an experiment than anything else," Thomas said. "There's a lot of production choices you can make in that kind of music that you don't get a chance to do with guitar rock." But it also represents a bit of a shift in cultural tastes that Thomas has reflected in his songwriting.

"Adam and I were talking about this a week ago: Music itself doesn't change, but where the spotlight is on music is always moving around," he said. "If both of our first records came out right now, they would probably be more like a poppy country record than anything that's on actual pop radio right now. Twenty years ago, that was what pop radio was, was bands like us. There was a period where it was Pearl Jam. Before that it was New Kids on the Block."

Thomas points to acts like Ed Sheeran and Twenty One Pilots as new pop artists that "harken back to a traditional idea of music." And he's settling in to write new material for what he suspects could be another solo album — it's "way too personal for it not to be," he said. It'll feel more stripped down, "really bare-bones acoustic-y, straight-up singer-songwriter stuff. I realized, looking back, that that's a record I haven't made yet, even if it's always in me."

But first he's got this victory lap around America with Counting Crows, plus the 20-year anniversary of Matchbox Twenty, which he said is still very much alive.

"It's a huge thing that none of us thought we'd achieve," he said. "Not just to be around for 20 years because all you have to do is stay together for that. But to be around for 20 years, and we went out last summer and had one of our biggest tours ever — that's a good feeling to have."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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