Matchbox Twenty, Train Rock The House — Gently

Strong performances and few surprises at New Jersey show.

HOLMDEL, New Jersey — Whether you love or loathe Matchbox Twenty, there's no denying that their songs are melodic and well crafted, their sound rocks — though gently — and frontman Rob Thomas has a gift for drama as he and the band conjure memories as jubilant as a first kiss and as painful as a puppy-love breakup.

They're also true professionals, a record company's dream. Matchbox Twenty were scheduled to begin Tuesday's performance at the PNC Bank Arts Center at 9 p.m., and by 9:01 they were well into the second verse of the set opener, "Crutch."

Thomas, the clear commander of the proceedings, strutted the stage in a purple long-sleeved shirt and black jeans, his right earring and overgrown mid-length hair showing just a touch of defiance as he guided the group through a cavalcade of cleanly orchestrated hits. (Click for photos from Tuesday's show.)

Everything from the set's pacing to the band's interaction with the crowd seemed carefully planned. "All right New Jersey!" Thomas exclaimed two songs in. "This venue in particular is one of my top five places to play in the country." Of course, the audience shouted its approval and bonded with the singer as he began the tender ballad "Leave."

One reason Matchbox Twenty have been so successful is that they believe wholeheartedly in what they do. There's not a drop of artifice, and as a result crowds embrace them as comrades. Which is why the audience here felt compelled to sing along with every word of "Mad Season," "If You're Gone," "Bent," "Push" and "Real World."

Thomas wowed the fans by donning an acoustic guitar for "Angry" and sitting behind a grand piano for "Rest Stop." He was equally animated without an instrument — twirling his mic stand over his head in a move straight from the Steven Tyler playbook, and holding his chest as he contorted his face with pain during "Last Beautiful Girl."

Thomas was clearly the star, but his bandmates were also fun to watch. Guitarist Kyle Cook, with his shiny bald head, black, half-unbuttoned shirt and leather pants, played a variety of short but flavorful leads; rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor, in a checkered green shirt and black slacks, provided the group's alterna-geek appeal; and drummer Paul Doucette, though barely visible behind his kit, propelled the music with a variety of straight-ahead beats.

Opening band Train only had half an hour onstage, but they made the most of it, fitting close to 10 songs into a brief set. The band entered to a polyrhythmic soundtrack and immediately burst into "She's on Fire."

Singer Patrick Monahan, dressed in a red-collared long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans, strode the stage banging a tambourine; he occasionally brought out a pair of bongos to accompany Scott Underwood's drumbeats. For most of the show, Monahan confined himself to singing, but he did reveal his sense of humor in thanking Matchbox Twenty for taking Train on the road: "Those guys have been really nice to us, even though women are much more attracted to us than to them."

With one guitarist on acoustic and the other on electric, the band achieved a twangy, rockin' blend that sometimes sounded like a less arty R.E.M. Nearly every chorus was bolstered by soothing vocal harmonies.

Although the band played a variety of songs from their two albums, including "Hopeless," "I Wish You Would" and "Free," it was their two hits, "Meet Virginia" and the ubiquitous "Drops of Jupiter," that sent the crowd into karaoke sing-alongs.

The only raucous moment came when the band burst into a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Ramble On." For a moment Train were the world's best tribute band, Monahan sounding wail-for-wail like Robert Plant while guitarists Rob Hotchkiss and Jimmy Stafford churned out a mean series of hard rock riffs and searing solo licks. Before the song had time to leave the listeners' minds, Train had thanked the house and disappeared.