Matt Nathanson – At the Point (2006)
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Matt Nathanson killed my career as a recording artist.
Well. Not really. But opening for Nathanson at a house concert was really what made me understand that I should not be making music.
I never shared this with him, naturally, and even if I did, I’m sure he’d reject my version of events â€” on the couple of occasions I’ve talked with him, he’s come across as a friendly, down-to-earth guy. Definitely too nice to describe the horrible train wreck that was my set that night: The broken strings, the painfully obvious lack of communication betwixt musicians, the vocal clams, the sphincter-tighteningly embarrassing stage patter.
This flameout didn’t happen all in one night â€” I’d been losing enthusiasm for my own songs throughout the tour (insofar as any series of concerts that includes a return engagement at the local Barnes & Noble can be called a “tour”), marking time between what I imagined to be cleverly chosen covers (this particular night, we did Stephen Bishop’s “On and On,” and, unbelievably, ruined it). The writing was definitely on the wall, even if I didn’t see it.
And then Matt Nathanson came out and fucking slayed. There wasn’t a breathing soul in the place that wasn’t comfortably in the palm of his hand by the time he wrapped up his set, at 2 A.M., with a singalong cover of Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Armed with just his voice and an acoustic guitar, he rocked so hard the cops came.
And I thought, Shit. That’s what I’m missing.
Understand that I’m not holding Matt Nathanson up as a paragon of classic pop songwriting or thrilling vocals; in either department, he’s arguably nothing special. His lyrics, in particular, tend toward the type of stuff that seems either unbelievably profound or completely inane, but doesn’t make enough sense for you to make a decision on it either way. They mostly seem to be about pretty girls, which goes a long way toward explaining the preponderance of them in the audiences of his shows. Musically, his songs often sound like something you heard during an episode of Everwood’s One Tree Gilmore Creek. Even if you’ve never even watched any of those shows.
To draw a sloppy comparison, some friends of mine at the time liked to call him Mattie Goo Goo (as in Dolls). I always thought that was a bit harsh, but I can understand it.
Anyway, the point is, the guy knows how to sell. “Working a crowd” doesn’t even begin to describe what he does; if you’ve never been to a show, get thee hither, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. There’s a reason why Nathanson has been able to carve out an impressively large fanbase for himself without the benefit of major (or often even indie) label money.
Case in point: The just-released At the Point, Nathanson’s first live album and the first title to see wide release on his own Acrobat Records. It’s the product of years of patient, savvy listener cultivation. Pay a visit to his website and you’ll see what I mean â€” he comes across like a guy who’s selling CDs out of the back of his car and is grateful for every listener.
Both of those things may actually describe Matt Nathanson accurately. It’s sort of not the point, though. The point is that At the Point captures Nathanson on his prime turf; even if listening to these performances isn’t as compelling as watching them, you get the idea well enough. He’s a performer with a rare grasp of his strengths, something that goes a long way toward rendering the (sometimes glaring) shortcomings of his music irrelevant. In a very strange way, I suppose that might be what songwriting is really all about. Listen to “Princess” (download) and “Answering Machine” (download) and decide for yourself.