Before heading over to the Troubadour for the Matt Nathanson show I took my girlfriend out for an “appreciation night” to thank her for enduring some horrendous traffic the previous Friday to pick me up at LAX, after I’d conveniently escaped the wildfires on a business trip to Reno and Phoenix. The sushi restaurant she chose looked halfway empty when we arrived, but we discovered with some dismay that the three gleamingly empty tables that had beckoned to us were actually reserved. Many restaurants in LA are leery about taking reservations, since the stereotypes about Californians and lateness are based on a true story, so we figured there was a decent chance it would be someone famous. The pair of somewhat scruffy couples that arrived for the nearest table didn’t necessarily look famous, but I noticed one of them was carrying a mandolin case. File this away for later.

The Troubadour is an older venue located just on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. There’s a very well-defined line between the two cities, and the Troubadour is the last stand of Hollywood dive bars before you find yourself surrounded by the stately palm trees and suspicious neighbors of Beverly Hills. I’ve never particularly liked the Troubadour, but I’ve easily seen more shows here than anywhere else in LA. Parking is inconvenient, the drinks are more expensive than the atmosphere warrants, and it’s cramped enough that you constantly feel like you’re going to hit your head on something. On the other hand, last year I saw two of my favorite songs of the year performed there on the same night (Lazy Eye, by the Silversun Pickups, and The Curious Thing About Leather, by Irving) and they’re usually pretty casual about giving me a pass to the Loft when it’s open.

The Loft is a separate bar area above the stage that’s actually separated from the rest of the venue by a staircase and some very thick glass. I guess the only advantage of heading up there is the inherent feeling of coolness (which might be illusory; I have no idea how liberally they hand out passes) and a few cushy places to sit. You can even watch the bands either through the windows or on a widescreen TV above the bar. Although experience has taught me it’s worth giving the opening bands a fair chance, tonight we actually just camped out in the Loft until it was Matt’s turn to take the stage. Hence I have nothing to say about the openers.

I’ve only ever seen Matt Nathanson playing solo before, and it’s always been in front of a pint-sized crowd. Last year, at a surprise show with Mountain Goats at Pitzer College in Claremont – where there were so many sound problems he ended up performing without a microphone – was the first time I’ve seen him play in front of more than a hundred people. But Matt’s career has been doing well enough; he indulged in a very strange marriage to go on tour with Pink last year, and his new record, Some Mad Hope, has enjoyed solid reviews and sales thus far.

When playing with a band, Matt is a self-described “dictator,” although it wasn’t readily apparent on Friday. He can sometimes be a bit catty, especially when fans start shouting out songs they’re hoping he’ll cover, but I certainly understand.

However, performing covers is one of the sharpest parts of Matt’s game. In the midst of Still Waiting for Spring’s “Lucky Boy,” he tucked a couple of chords and lines from Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” in between choruses. During “Princess” he started singing about how Pretty she would look in Pink. Later on, he pulled the same trick with “Detroit Waves,” slipping in a few lines from “Paint it Black” near the end. He even traded a few riffs with the bassist that had us convinced he was about to start playing “Crazy Train,” but it didn’t go any farther. He’s got a lackluster cover of the James song “Laid” (where the familiar adage of “If you don’t have anything to add to a cover, don’t do it” rings true; as much as I love Matt his cover of Laid is very forgettable) but every time he touches an eighties song, it’s pure gold.

On Saturday, this happened to be Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” One of Matt’s greatest talents as a performer is his ability to relate to an audience. He fiddles with his guitar, tracing out familiar riffs that push all the right buttons. His stage banter isn’t canned or scripted, or at least, it’s never perceptible as such. And the fact that he can organize a sing-along, to a Journey song no less, in a city as unbearably cool as Los Angeles speaks volumes. To hear voices around me cracking while trying to match Steve Perry’s high notes was unforgettable.

Most times I’ve seen him play, Matt has covered a Bruce Springsteen song. On Saturday it was “Atlantic City.” The treat about the Troubadour performance was that he brought a pair of familiar faces, David Immergluck and Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows, onto stage with him for it. The same pair that stole our table (okay, reserved a table in advance) during dinner.

He finished up with an encore featuring one of the openers, Ingrid Michaelson, in a duet of “Loud,” one of his older songs from Still Waiting for Spring. And he closed by squeezing one more round of singing out of the audience with “Answering Machine.”