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Friday February 9th, 2024 at Madrid Theatre in Kansas City, MO
Matthew Sweet, & Abe Partridge

There's no need for something extravagant. I won't reach into a bag of literary tricks, bother with the top hat, or even set the spotlight. I can do this in my sleep. It's good stuff, but we've all been through this before so why bother making a big deal out of it.

The evening began with Abe Partridge. The room was filling up nicely but very few knew there was an opening act, and even fewer knew who Abe Partridge was. I didn't. He took that fact in stride, delivering a set that introduced both himself and his craft. Almost immediately I decided that I liked both very much. Partridge is from Alabama, though as he told the crowd in a long, breathless introduction to one of his songs, he's lived everywhere and every way. His current live set is neo-traditional country. That is to say, it's actually country. His albums are full of bold production decisions and big swings that accent the jagged edges, but live the songs are refined to an acoustic guitar that is either finger-picked or frailed, a scratchy voice colored by a deep drawl, and the crying pedal steel (aka the "Sad Machine") of Austin Harper. The latter took few solos, but he mostly colored the edges, allowing Partridge's lyrics and their delivery to become the focus. Those lyrics are literary and smart, often telling long, transportive stories – a sort of William Elliott Whitmore meets Jeffrey Lewis chimera. They're memorable, too. It's not often that I still recall a handful of the songs weeks after a performance. "Colors" was sincere and heartbreaking, "Ride Willie Ride" rebellious and sly, "Abe Partridge's 403d Freakout" was late night existentialism, while unreleased closer "Nashville with a G" spelled out Partridge's dislike of the music city that he's forced to orbit. None of the songs had much in common with the music of the headliner, but the authenticity of Partridge was impossible not to admire. Afterwards, I purchased a record from his merch table in the sterile lobby, but I should have bought one of his paintings as well.

Madrid Theatre is a catchall. It was a 1920s silent movie house that lived several lives (and deaths) until it was resurrected twenty years ago. Since then, it's been home to weddings and corporate events, to plays and musicals, and some concerts too. But it doesn't feel like a music venue. Not opulent like a music hall, nor worn like a rock club, it's an 800-capacity middle thing with an off-putting high stage that separates performers from audiences and with a carpeted balcony replete with VIP seats gathered around low tables. The not-loud-enough PA and the reserved stage lights don't scream rock show. It's hard to engage with the room from either side of the stage. Bands who wish to overcome this handicap must do all of the screaming themselves. Some bands don't bother. That energy is often matched.

Matthew Sweet's nearly 90-minute set contained seventeen songs – thirteen of them pulled from the trio of albums that defined his commercial apex: Girlfriend (1991), Altered Beast (1993), & 100% Fun (1995). Of course, that is precisely what the Generation X audience in the Madrid had come to hear, and Sweet was comfortable obliging them. With help from his backing band consisting of lead guitarist John Moreland, acoustic guitarist Adrian Carter, bassist Paul Chastain (of Velvet Crush), and drummer Debbi Peterson (of The Bangles), the quintet nailed Sweet's timeless power-pop. The players gelled perfectly for mid-set highlight "Winona," while Moreland's bluesy solo in "You Don't Love Me" bested the album version originally played by Robert Quine. That's quite a feat. Sweet's voice sounded good, although a bit more honeyed than it once was, but the requisite backing vocals and harmonies were spot on – particularly during "I've Been Waiting." As the backloaded set wore on, I found more and more to enjoy about the songs. The energy, however, never matched the material.

Although jolly and armed with witty banter, Sweet remained seated and hidden under the shadows of a cap and behind his mustache, unavailable to the audience. His performance offered no excitement or vim. Furtherless, his band were strangers and played his songs with no investment, playing the same setlist the entire tour. The audience was also stagnant. Sure, everyone up front knew most of the words to most of the songs, and absolutely everyone in the room sang along with encore "Girlfriend" (while recording the performance on their phone), but great songs couldn't overcome the effects of time that made everything – the building, the band, the audience – feel old and tired. I'm tired just remembering the show. I think I'll go take a nap.