Matthew Sweet had a cold, which was a little unfortunate, but he’d not played in London for a long time (a guy behind us said 20 years, but surely it couldn’t be that long?), so the show had to go on. While he got his disclaimer in early, he actually coped well vocally, and only on one or two songs was his voice noticeably hampered.
His band, made up of long-time drummer Ric Menck, guitarist Jason Victor and bassist Paul Chastain, were as great as you’d hope, and if Victor isn’t quite Richard Lloyd or Robert Quine, he was still damn good, and supplied the sort of pointed, squalling solos that so distinguised Sweet’s work in the early 1990s. The mix was a little off (bass guitar had no definition, at least where I was standing, and, of course, the vocals were too quiet and the cymbals too loud). But seeing as my friend Nick Frater, who was standing in another part of the room, told me that for him the kick/snare mix was poor, which I didn’t feel was the main problem, perhaps the room swallows up different things depending on where you stand.
Sweet has been busy in the last few years, with an album in 2017, Tomorrow Forever, and a release of outtakes, Forever’s Daughter, just dropped. His set contained five songs from the two records, along with one from Sunshine Lies, but otherwise the set was drawn from his classic trilogy of 1990s albums: Girlfriend, Altered Beast and 100% Fun.
Early highlights of the set for me included Byrdgirl, from Sunshine Lies, and Winona, from Girlfriend – a Neil Young-like country-tinged ballad, built on the simplest of chord sequences and rhythms. The original is decorated with gorgeous pedal steel by Greg Leisz, but Jason Victor did a great job on lead guitar of capturing the weeping feel of Leisz’s playing.
Divine Intervention followed and was appreciatively received, but I was more taken with Sweet’s reading of Someone to Pull the Trigger from Altered Beast. While on record the harmonies and sparkling guitars can sometimes sweeten songs that are crushingly despondent, in live performance the song had a rawness that was very affecting.
We’re the Same, from 100% Fun, was the moment where Sweet’s cold got the better of him vocally. The high notes on the recording are a long way up, so Sweet’s decision to sing the chorus an octave down and have Chastain and Victor cover the high parts was a wise one, but even so Sweet struggled with the high notes. It did hamper the song a bit, but colds are colds. We were lucky he was able to sing at all.
You Don’t Love Me, Girlfriend‘s darkest moment, was a little uncomfortable. The recording smoothed some of the song’s rough edges off with piano and pedal steel. In live performance by a four-piece band, it felt much starker, and as the song neared its end and Sweet sang ad libs while Victor played a molten Neil Young-like solo, it was almost too raw.
New song I Belong To You lightened the mood a bit, but what really got everyone up again was a three-song run of early-’90s classics: Girlfriend, I’ve Been Waiting and Sick of Myself, which was absolutely great. I’m a huge fan of the latter song, and have written about it before, so it was a treat to see Sweet and Ric Menck pound out that deathless guitar-and-drum riff.
After Sick of Myself, rather than walk off, Sweet played feedback and divebombed his guitar’s tremolo arm for several minutes, before cueing the band (who did walk off for a while) into The Searcher from Tomorrow Forever.
Maybe it’s because Sick of Myself was an unimprovable end to the show, or maybe I was a bit grumpy because I’m about 15 years past the point of ever wanting to hear another electric guitarist attempt to deafen everyone with feedback (it’s not 1993 anymore and my ears don’t need the unnecessary beating*), but the encore fell a little flat to me. The Searcher was not a song many in the audience knew, and while Evangeline was, and it was inevitable that Sweet would play it, I’d have rather it had been folded into the main set and there had been no encore.
All in all, though, it was a really good gig. At times I missed a little of the light and shade of the recorded arrangements, and felt that if Sweet had swapped his semi-distorted electric for an acoustic on a few songs, it would have changed things up in a nice way, but there’s simply no arguing with songs as good as Sweet’s, or a band as good.
May he come back again, a little sooner next time.
*For the same reason, the next person who wolf-whistles two inches from my earhole had better run.