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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Matt Nathanson enthralls audiences at House of Blues

Published: November 15, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

Matt Nathanson only achieved nationwide recognition at age 36 in 2009, with his hit single “Come on Get Higher.” But for die-hard fans who know the artist’s work dating back to 1993 with the release of his first album, “Please,” Matt Nathanson has always been a beloved singer-songwriter with beautiful lyrics and haunting melodies. Now 40, Nathanson sold out the House of Blues this Saturday, on tour for his newest album “Last of the Great Pretenders.”

Nathanson’s voice sounded possibly even better live than it did on the album, as he played more popular tunes like “Mission Bells” and “Heart Starts.” Nathanson did not disappoint even when melodies were on the higher end of his vocal range, such as in his song “Faster.” Nathanson is on tour with three other band members; perhaps the most notable is Aaron Tap, Nathanson’s guitar player and lifelong friend. Tap sang background vocals and played excellent guitar melodies that knew just when to fade in the background as to not drown out Nathanson’s vocals.

Nathanson is known for having an energetic and enthralling stage presence, and Boston audiences were not disappointed on Saturday. From dancing a constant little side-step to calling out people in the audience who weren’t looking all that enthused, Nathanson always found a way to keep the audience involved. It also helped that he is from Boston. Born and raised in Lexington, Nathanson called Bostonians his people, talked about the Boston Marathon and at one point came out wearing a Red Sox jersey. This connection seemed genuine; it was as though all audience members were able to bond with Nathanson just based on our knowledge of similar landmarks, roads, accents and behaviors.

Nathanson would even tell full five-minute stories on stage, and audiences would still stare at him with rapt attention. When introducing one of the most popular songs on his new album, titled “Kinks Shirt,” Nathanson spoke of the inspiration behind the song. He said while he was recording his album, he would often eat at the same café, which had a very attractive, tattooed waitress. He would imagine sexual escapades with her, and it was this attraction that inspired the hit song. Nathanson then talked about how he was worried she would figure out the song was about her, and his fears were soon realized once both his manager and a crazy fan found the waitress and informed her. The way Nathanson told the story was hilarious, and the song that followed was even more on the mark, perhaps the best performance of the night. (The tale of the “Kinks Shirt” song gets even more interesting when audiences remember the fact that the video Nathanson created for the song involves Nathanson falling in love with a girl, and then still loving her once he realizes she is transgender).

While Nathanson’s entire performance was fantastic, it remains true that behind Nathanson’s energy and charismatic stage presence, he remains insecure about his popularity. He made jokes that people in the audience were perhaps there by accident, and thought his name was “Mike Nickerson.” Nathanson also has a nasty habit of playing too many covers. I own 90 songs by Matt Nathanson; he has a very wide repertoire and 10 albums. But Nathanson seems to feel as though he has to play covers to entertain crowds, because they don’t know his music and would be bored unless he played better-known tunes. This simply isn’t true. Nathanson routinely sells out the House of Blues every time he comes to Boston; he needs to understand that audiences are there to hear him sing his own songs. While Nathanson’s covers are usually well-executed and audiences do sing along, many people in the crowd scream out names of Nathanson’s songs that he then doesn’t have time to sing because he is too busy singing other artists. Nathanson needs to accept that he does have a solid fan base, especially in the Boston area, and we would love to hear him sing some of his older, but still beloved, tunes.

The times Nathanson did revisit his old albums were met with much success. When introducing his tune “Bulletproof Weeks,” Nathanson said that he used to refuse to play the song even when audiences begged for it because it was about a personal relationship and made him upset. But now that more time had passed, he felt comfortable playing it. The song was beautiful and haunting, one of the best slower songs of the night. Another older song was “Answering Machine” from his album “Still Waiting for Spring,” which came out in 1999. On this tune, Nathanson involved the audience, as we sang one part of the song he would sing over us, to form a vibrant harmony.

While Nathanson may be 40, he has lost none of the lyrical genius and vibrato that he started out with. When he comes back to the area with yet another album, audiences should flock to see this Boston native take the stage.