Matchbox Twenty and Sugar Ray conjure past successes

Thursday, May 29, 2003

It was like 1997 all over again.

Six years ago, the pairing of Matchbox Twenty and Sugar Ray would have been billed as the supergroup tour of the summer. But six years later, even if the two bands aren't as popular as they once were, plenty of fans came out to Kemper Arena Wednesday to prove that the artists' popularity is still strong.

Once L.A.'s Sugar Ray came onstage - to a Hispanic block-party set and a giant, light-up KISS-esque sign above it - everyone seemed ready to get the festivities going. Sugar Ray's upcoming record, "In The Pursuit of Leisure," will be out Tuesday, and while the ensemble showcased a bit of the new material, the audience mostly got what they wanted: a string of radio hits.

While starting out with a much harder sound, the act has maintained success because of its ability to craft perfect "summer songs" - such as "Fly," "Every Morning" and "When It's Over," all three of which turned into an audience-wide sing-a-long.

Unfortunately, frontman Mark McGrath's voice didn't hold up very well in concert without all the studio wizardry helping him along. But this shortcoming hardly mattered to the crowd. And when McGrath came off the stage and roamed around the venue's floor, stopping to shake hands and sing with the faithful, he proved himself the consummate showman.

VH1 mainstay Matchbox Twenty got an extremely receptive response for its two-hour headlining set, and the Orlando, Fla., collective seemed to feed off this vibe. Grammy-winning vocalist Rob Thomas' pipes were in great shape, and the group poured out all the old hits and more, including a Paul McCartney and Wings cover.

Backed by colossal video screens and an impressive light show (featuring strobes, fog machines, etc.), Matchbox plowed through its hits "Real World," "Mad Season" and "Disease" from the current album "More Than You Think You Are."

The night's best moment came midway through, when Thomas and guitarist Kyle Cook led the crowd in a stripped-down version of "If You're Gone," a hit from the group's second record. And nobody complained during the three-song encore, featuring the band's biggest radio hit, "Push."

Although both multi-platinum bands put on a professional show, there was absolutely nothing unpredictable about it either. Each of their sets were filled with plenty of rock posturing (Sugar Ray even went so far as to play a Ramones tune), but there was little deviation from the formulas that have made them the successful (albeit white-bread) artists they are today.