Matchbox Twenty and Counting Crows meet in the middle

“Wow, I got totally out of control at the Matchbox Twenty concert last night!” is probably not something you want to admit today.

This is not a band – like White Zombie or Insane Clown Posse or something – whose music you’d think would incite uncontrollable behaviour. Unless you count 40-year-old guys dancing in the aisles to “It’s 3 am, I must be lonely” at Rogers Place on Friday night. So this wasn’t just a women’s show, the adorable and talented Matchbox Twenty singer Rob Thomas notwithstanding. People in a crowd of about 12,000 – including groups of guys – were chanting his name late in the night. It’s clear: Women love him, men want to be him.

For 20 years now – always with the 20 year nostalgia, thanks a lot, Pearl Jam – Matchbox Twenty has been such a force of middle of the road rock that they practically paved their own road to go down the middle of. And that goes for their co-headliner Counting Crows, too. What? No Hootie and the Blowfish? That would’ve been the perfect triple bill.

With these two masters of MOR being plenty, this event was whole new brand of “I Love the ‘90s” nostalgia, in an alternate universe where punk didn’t happen; Nirvana (and Pearl Jam) and grunge rock went unnoticed. Instead, these bands took the jangly middle path and perfected distinctive formulaic styles of easy breezy roots-rock goodness, carrying on the tradition of bands like the Eagles and America, the band.

You see, there are basically two kinds of rock ‘n’ roll: There’s the kind where you bang you head up and down, and the kind where you bob your head from side to side. Matchbox Twenty and Counting Crows are obviously the bobbing variety. Their songs are pleasant, relatable and romantic, simple, easy to understand, to hum along to, to tap your foot, and rendered in a simple mid-tempo three chord style in the netherworld between country and rock, where mandolins and accordions coexist peacefully with electric guitars. There are few challenges or surprises offered, no virtuoso solos, no flash, no frills, just lots of radio-friendly hooks and easy listening ear candy from start to finish.

And the problem is? The problem is that it can be predictable, boring. Where’s the adventure? The awe-inspiring songcraft and performance? Nothing was left to chance at this show, there were simply too many major chords, too many sweet melodies, too many catchy hooks, too conventional, not enough weirdness. This was anti-weird.

At least they all played their own instruments and didn’t appear to use any tracking. That’s about the highest praise you can give a modern rock concert.

Counting Crows got the first kick at the cat. Adam Duritz, in stage clothes that made him look like a street person, was a dramatic, charismatic presence, given to wild gestures and braying passion as he sang his deep, confessional songs. Sadly, aside from the obvious crowd-pleaser Mr. Jones and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (we now have one too many versions of Big Yellow Taxi), a lot of people seemed rudely indifferent. You could hear chatter during quiet moments, and there was an embarrassing bit where Duritz held the microphone into the crowd in a chorus in anticipation of a mass singalong that failed to happen. A 10-minute version of Goodnight Elisabeth, however, demonstrated their skill in dynamics and jamming mojo in the vein of fellow San Franciscans The Grateful Dead.

The crowd stood, even in the stands, for Matchbox Twenty. People commenced to get out of control. Maybe it’s the magnetic charisma of Rob Thomas. Or maybe it’s the conviction with which this band delivers its middle-of-the-road rock. Their reputation precedes them. When you make a story in The Onion – “Matchbox Twenty Finally Finishes Watering Down Long-Awaited New Album” – you know you’ve permeated pop culture. So you could say there’s nowhere to go but up. Thomas turns out to be a pretty fine singer, especially evident in the slow songs that made women (and some men) melt. The hits and the dancing in the aisles came later.

And in a world of lies, at least neither of these bands pretends to be anything they’re not. So there’s that.