- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

Matthew Sweet proudly proclaims his current tour a “homemade” affair.

The singer-songwriter, who swung by the District’s 9:30 Club Saturday for his first area appearance in four years, self-produced his last two albums outside the “evil” corporate world. Now, he wants to reach the masses all by his lonesome, even if it means, he joked, hawking T-shirts out back every night.

True to his grassroots mien, Mr. Sweet and his ‘mates, comprised chiefly of opening act Velvet Crush members, looked like they wandered in from a truck stop diner.

Well, showmanship never was Mr. Sweet’s strong suit.

That never matters when his buoyant voice rips through his irresistible hooks. He shared those hummable melodies with Saturday’s crowd, but flattened their bounce through some well-intentioned misfires.

For openers, the show didn’t have one. “Opening act” Velvet Crush took the stage in the middle of Mr. Sweet’s performance, ripping through a set that was remarkably simpatico with the main attraction.

It helps that Crush drummer Rick Menck is a longtime Sweet collaborator. The move, while selfless and seemingly novel, interrupted whatever forward momentum Mr. Sweet’s music had built. The performer, alas, isn’t a bold enough live act to mount the necessary comeback.

His faultless pop instincts suffer when trotted out before a live microphone — a depressing discovery since he reproduces a good deal of his hits with striking accuracy.

Take “You Don’t Love Me,” for instance, a sumptuous ballad from his 1991 breakthrough album “Girlfriend.” What should have been stripped down to reveal the song’s palpable hurt received the arena rock treatment instead. Mr. Sweet crushed the innocence right out of it.

Similarly, “Divine Intervention” struggled to be heard through the wall of guitars erected by Mr. Sweet and two fellow guitar mates.

A welcome exception came with “The Big Cats of Shambala,” the opening track from Mr. Sweet’s new avant-garde album “Living Things.” Old school drums and guitars took a stab replicating the song’s Jamaican drums and mandolin, making the case that the album’s innovations may have been for naught.

“The Ugly Truth,” a number from the similarly experimental “Altered Beast” album, also blossomed with a makeover. The song played out harder, faster, angrier and definitely better than the original.

The night’s few miscues, from a “kick drum emergency” to a missed chorus early on, added a measure of charm. Mr. Sweet chortled through the blunders, and kept beaming until the final note.

Yet Saturday’s concert wasn’t all good vibrations. Mr. Sweet took a lazy swipe at corporations, the current administration and even local alt-radio titan WHFS-FM.

Why not — at least on the latter front? The station wouldn’t go near his new material, no matter how worthy it may be.

For better or worse, Mr. Sweet doesn’t play by pop star rules, even though he so skillfully sounds like one. That means more soul-searching albums, mercurial live performances — and, as always, enough gorgeous melodies to catch us off-guard.

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