I’d like to propose the formal codification of a new genre of contemporary pop music called “utilitarian rock” for the sorts of radio-ready, concert-friendly fare being offered these days by the spiritual sons of daughters of Bryan Adams. You know the stuff I’m talking about: it forms the backbone of programming for most (so-called) rock radio stations, it’s built around a mostly harmless mid-tempo attack topped with earnest vocals by men who refer to women as girls, it’s generally made by people cute enough to make women not mind being called girls — and it sells by the truckload, much to the chagrin of music critics who prefer instead obtuse, challenging fare heard by few and imitated by none.
In short, utilitarian rock is music that delivers the goods where they need to be delivered (commercially speaking), nothing more, nothing less. Prior to last Saturday’s show at the woefully under-utilized RPI Field House, I would have emphatically endorsed the Goo Goo Dolls as the end-all-and-be-all of the genre — but after seeing Matchbox Twenty deliver a generous set that pushed every commercial button that needed to be pushed, and some that didn’t, I think I’ve instead got to doff my cap to the Florida-bred quintet (and their four supporting players) as the true titans of the field.
Which is not an insult, let me make that perfectly clear: Matchbox Twenty do what they do extraordinarily well, crafting seemingly-simple songs with impossible-catchy hooks, touching on just about every non-funk-flavored idiom in the process, tapping America’s lowest common (musical) denominator with aplomb and gusto. The group’s timeless (in the sense that they could have been issued any time in the past 20 years and will continue to dot pop radio for the next 20 as well) singles, “Push,” “Real World” and “3 A.M.,” were presented in pristine perfect fashion Saturday night, as were another dozen or so album tracks from the group’s two multi-platinum records.
And that ain’t easy to do, particularly in a big old barn of a venue like the Field House — although Matchbox Twenty didn’t appear to working up much of a sweat while they did it. Which may, ultimately, be what drives critics so bloody crazy when it comes to this stuff: we like to think that crafting a perfect three minute pop song is the hardest, most exquisite feat in wonderful world of music, but utilitarian rock guys make it look easy, pooping out a new hit whenever a trendy soundtrack record requires it.
Of course, critics may also be bothered by such gaffes as singer Rob Thomas’ statement during a mid-concert acoustic set that “It ain’t a rock concert until you bring out a piano,” since we’re more inclined to think that it ain’t a lounge act unless you bring out a piano, but there was no arguing with the squeals of delight while Thomas banged out an all-white-key melody on his baby grand, so what do we know? Besides the fact that we’re grateful Thomas didn’t feel compelled to perform “Smooth,” his odious duet with Santana, I mean?
Openers the Jayhawks were alt-country before there was alt-country, racking up nearly two decades worth of experience in the world of twang with nary a crossover pop hit to show for their efforts. Given that they’re nonexistent on commercial rock radio, the Jayhawks’ confident set Saturday night went over surprisingly well with the Matchbox Twenty crowd, who win kudos for showing respect to a band that earned it. The Jayhawks deeply American sound often evokes the sort of feelings and mines the sorts of themes that the Band once did — so maybe instead of radio hits they’ll just have to settle for a really great Martin Scorsese movie instead.
But I doubt that many Matchbox Twenty fans will go see it.