Matchbox Twenty | Zaca Creek, Santa Barbara, USA

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The Independent Culture

Just as flamenco sounds best in Spain, so too American rock is best heard in situ. Matchbox Twenty play music for the freeway, and their handsome and gifted guitarist, Kyle Cook, looks like he could slot into the cast of a Gap ad.

Perhaps it was the jet-lag, or the fact that I'd spent the afternoon watching the actress, Bo Derek (she, too, was at the ranch where Atlantic Records were hosting a junket celebrating the band's new Mad Season album) but with my chilled Bud and complimentary Calvin Klein shades, I was feeling rather open-minded by the time they took the stage last Saturday.

Despite sales in excess of 10 million units for their début album, Yourself Or Someone Like You, Matchbox still mean little in Britain unless you're a Santana fan. The voice on Carlos's single "Smooth", you see, belongs to Matchbox frontman Rob Thomas.

It was a sparky collaboration that won Thomas three Grammys. When an audience member voiced congratulations re "Smooth", Thomas joked that he'd never heard the song, but his band-mates jammed a few bars of it cod-style. The inference was clear: now we have other fish to fry.

Earlier they'd been introduced by Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, who had described Thomas as "a passionate songwriter who'd done so much so quickly it was almost incomprehensible". No argument there. As with Dave Matthews and his eponymous band, though, one suspects that in critical circles, Thomas and Matchbox Twenty's particular brand of Americana won't be quite as welcome an export as that of Mercury Rev, say.

"Angry" pitched camp somewhere between Pearl Jam and Counting Crows, Thomas's taut facial expressions and tumbling lyrics reminiscent of the former band's frontman, Eddie Vedder. Further in, "Crutch" followed-suit, it's execution feeding on a mix of extremely schooled musicianship and unbridled... well, yes, passion. This was music for the enormo-domes, all right, but despite Thomas's obvious sincerity, my attempts to empathise with his message - something I couldn't quite divine in any case - floundered mid-way across the Atlantic.

They closed with an impressive cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time", the arrangement stripped to its bones, Cook rejoining the lone Thomas to add a soulful backing vocal so soulful that you could see his own solo project coming. When they disappeared and the house PA fired-up the Verve's "Sonnet", it connected with me at a far deeper level, yet washed over the home crowd like muzak.

Soon the Bud was wearing off, Bo was just a memory and the specificity of the cultural lens was making value-judgements tricky. Another case of two nations divided by a common language, but this time the language was music.

'Mad Season' is released 23 May on EastWest