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Once more with less feeling

Who knows if Matchbox Twenty's lead singer Rob Thomas ever imagined that his band would break out of Orlando and into super-stardom? As a young upstart, he probably studied his musical heroes, pining away for a break.

Playing before a crowd of 10,604 at the St. Pete Times Forum, Thomas' studies were apparent _ and no thanks to any rock 'n' roll innovation.

Since its breakout with 1996's Yourself or Someone Like You, Matchbox Twenty has evolved into a polished, "mature," band; it even ditched the original numeric incarnation of its name for a more sophisticated version. But worse, Thomas has surrendered to every rock star cliche.

Take his first address to the audience one song into the band's musically strong but rote two-hour set: "I'm not going to lie," Thomas said. "We've got four more shows left on this tour, so . . . for the next couple of hours, we're just going to make it Saturday. We're going to forget about everything outside."

Despite promises of escapism, Thomas' tormented vocals and tortured rock 'n' roll moves were more suited for downers like Disease or crowd-favorite Real World, in which he sang, "I wish the real world would just stop hassling me."

Thomas sat at a grand piano for the somber Could I Be You. Hey Rob, you're not Michael Stipe. Lighten up! Where's the fun you promised?

None of that mattered to the enamored crowd. Fans just wanted to sing along with hits like 3 A.M. and the banjo-flecked Unwell, one of the show's highlights; fans also relished Back 2 Good, which despite its anguished lyrics, possessed a fetching chorus.

And Matchbox Twenty _ a quintet comprised of Thomas, bassist Brian Yale, guitarists Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook and drummer Paul Doucette, aided by keyboardist and bay area local Matt Beck _ is the perfect sing-along band. They have a bevy of recognizable hits spanning three albums. Why does Thomas insist on marring that in pursuit of rock 'n' roll transcendence a la U2? (Speaking of which, a cover of Where the Streets Have No Name was sorely misguided.)

A stripped down version of If You're Gone _ just Thomas and a guitarist _ benefitted from the jettisoning of the frenzied, often distracting mechanized lights and flashy video, revealing earnest emotionality. Bent, with its no-frills chorus, charmed.

Opening act Sugar Ray, led by bleached-blond pretty boy Mark McGrath, riled up the crowd with its batch of hedonistic power pop. Prancing around the splashy Day of the Dead-themed stage like a surf rock Backstreet Boy, McGrath served up faithful renditions of hits like Every Morning and Fly, during which he raced into the audience and handed singing duties to a young fan.

Sugar Ray played an oddball cover, putting its, um, sheen on the Ramones Blitzkrieg Bop and introduced songs from its aptly titled new album In the Pursuit of Leisure. Party on!

_ To contact Brian Orloff, e-mail borloffsptimes.com.

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