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Tuesday July 18th, 2017 at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, MO
Matthew Sweet, & Tommy Keene
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It's not a matter of discipline, it's a matter of time. Too Much Rock indeed. So here's just a quick paragraph that might jog my memory years from now when this page is revisited as a Throwback Thursday.

Heat and humidity moved the show from the outside festival stage to the indoor club stage. I'm not sure if this affects fans, but it must change things for bands, and it certainly does for photographers. Unsure if I was prepared, I arrived just before the advertised 8pm start time, and took a stage-right position that I hoped didn't block the seated patrons behind me. As advertised (this time anyway), Tommy Keene soon took the stage carrying a bright twelve-string acoustic guitar. He'd play the first half of his set on that Taylor acoustic, the second half on well-loved Telecaster. Both halves sampled his long career, pulling only a few songs from his excellent latest album Laugh in the Dark (Second Motion Records, 2015). When he accidently skipped a song on his acoustic setlist, he offered a fan a chance to suggest a replacement. Of course he was already planning to play 1984's "Places That Are Gone" — that song's a power pop classic. So Keene picked a song himself and pushed things forward. Closer "Places..." was of course a highlight, and his Robyn Hitchcock cover was fun, but "Long Time Missing" from 1998's Isolation Party (Matador Records) may have been my favorite cut of the forty-minute set. This song allowed Keene to demonstrate a guitar prowess that isn't built on flashy solos or speedy fingers, but rather the ability to play exactly the right note or chord (or both) at exactly the right time. God bless Tommy Keene.

At 9pm Matthew Sweet took the stage backed by usual suspects Ric Menck (drums) and Paul Chastain (bass), and newcomer Jason Victor (lead guitar). This gave me hope. To be fully transparent I must say that while I love Sweet's records, I've never enjoyed him live. I prefer short songs. Tight songs. Concise songs. And while Sweet can record the perfect sub-three-minute power pop song, each time I've seen him live, songs are stretched and bloated with endless codas, false endings, additional guitar solos, and most diabolically, constant guitar leads that obliterate the melodies. While I've seen him with at least two different guitarists, I held out hope that this third guitarist might be shy. Spoiler: he is not. Victor is a professional sideman (most famously joining Steve Wynn in Dream Syndicate) and easily dropped fluid leads everywhere Sweet expected them. I've talked to friends who enjoy this aspect of the Sweet's live show, and for them every bend or hammer Victor played on his Swope guitar was surely a delight. I say good for them.

Of course it was Matthew Sweet, standing center stage, that packed Knuckleheads. If break-through "Girlfriend" was also your entry point for Sweet, let me remind you that song was recorded 27 years ago. Time has marched for all of us, and while Sweet's voice remains strong, it is not as clear as it once was. It's here that the backing vocals of Chastian (a Kansas City native, it turns out) helped the cause. In his 30-year-plus career Sweet has remained a devotee of the pop song, though today he writes songs with more '70s expanse than the '60s clarity he once favored. In either milieu, they're often quite brilliant, and all were represented in a long set. Finally, having only seen Sweet in large venues in the '90s and '00s, I was excited to discover how he might behave on a smaller stage. The result was quite positive — Sweet's career has allowed him to develop a wonderfully easy and informal stage presence. He's wasn't chatty, or really even conversational, but rather Midwestern (Sweet has recently moved back to his native Nebraska) and familiar. Nice, meant in the best possible, non-sarcastic way imaginable.

Sweet introduced the set's final number (before returning for a two-song encore) as one of his favorites — something he stressed was a rarity, as he is evidently seldom satisfied with his own songwriting. That revealing bit of self-deprecation would (of course) lead to "Sick of Myself" from 1995's 100% Fun (Zoo Entertainment). Although this song is my favorite Sweet composition, the highlight of the set was actually "I've Been Waiting" from 1991's Girlfriend (Zoo). Here Sweet's band was joined by Tommy Keene (and Keene's twelve-string acoustic) for the most jangle pop song of the evening. This combination was just wonderful enough that I'll not only buy Sweet's next album, but tickets for his next visit to Kansas City. Call me a glutton for punishment, but Matthew Sweet's songs are an irresistible siren call no matter how long they stretch on, and I suspect that'll be just as true whatever Thursday you're reading this.



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