Matchbox 20 Strike Up New Image

Singer Rob Thomas focuses show on proving that his band can rock as well as roll with the hype.

NEW YORK -- Despite his rock-star good looks, his band's multimillion-

selling debut album and his obvious sex appeal, Rob Thomas hit the stage

Friday night with something more to prove.

Because the singer and the rest of Matchbox 20 elicit such basic hormonal

responses from many of their youthful fans, it's in their interest to demonstrate

once and for all that they have the chops as a band in spite of all the superficial

appeal. After all, one can assume they're in this for the long haul.

And if Friday's show is any indication, they're well on their way.

"I hope you all came here today to relax and have a good time," Thomas,

strikingly dressed in all black, told the throng gathered at the Hammerstein

Ballroom before ripping through almost all of the tracks from Matchbox 20's

debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, as well as a few new songs such

as "Tired" and "U & I and I."

The Ballroom was sold out and bubbling with excitement even before Thomas

and company took the stage. There were cigarette girls and candy men onhand

to add some old-fashioned style to the venue. MTV cameras were at the ready

to record a "Live at the 10 Spot" segment.

Teen-agers and twentysomethings in leather jackets and jeans were inching

closer to the stage at the front of the large, standing-room-only general-

admission area. And then, at 10 p.m. exactly, the noise level grew to deafening

heights as the sizzling-hot quintet Matchbox 20 climbed onstage.

For this show, which will be the group's first nationally televised full-length

concert (to be aired on MTV this spring), the band played like a group of college

kids looking for a record deal. The idea was to show that its mega-platinum

debut album is no studio-manufactured fluke and that there is a real rock 'n' roll

band behind the flashy videos and radio-friendly singles.

Opening with Yourself's dark and angry "Busted," the band made its case

by presenting itself as a much harder rock outfit than the MTV darlings that

many of the teenyboppers had come expecting to see. This didn't stop the kids

in the crowd from singing along to every word and moshing -- literally throwing

each other up in the air, just for the hell of it.

Secondly, Thomas de-emphasized his sexy side in favor of a more artsy

performance. He illustrated most of his autobiographical lyrics with intense

snarls and grimaces and by shaking his hands at his sides and patting his chest

as if he were overflowing with feelings that he needed to vent. The only

interruptions came from the video presentations that offered such pithy

commentary as "Opinion: a personal view, attitude or appraisal."

Further trying to prove his musical depth, Thomas made several references to

classic artists in introducing his material. Before the lilting "Shame," he

announced, "This is a cheatin' song. I wrote it 'cause Willie Nelson, Waylon

Jennings and Hank Williams always had a cheatin' song. It's to the bitch who

gave all my stuff to Goodwill."

The rest of the set included new songs such as "Tired" and "U & I and I," as well

as covers such as the late Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me." But it was the

hits, specifically

HREF="">"3 A.M."

(RealAudio excerpt) and "Push," that left the crowd apoplectic. Girls rushed the

stage and threw up stuffed animals and the like,

including a poster dedicated to lead guitarist Kyle Cook that read (alluding to

the lyrics of "Long Day"): "Kyle, I'd reach my hand in your pocket

any day."

Although it was a nice change of pace to hear '80s diva Cyndi Lauper's old hit

"Time After Time" performed acoustically by Thomas and Cook as an encore, it

was not the kind of material that helped to showcase the depth of the musicians

or the personality of the group.

All in all, though, it doesn't look like Matchbox 20 have much to worry

about. They have a way with a hook, play hard and loud, and, if worse came to

worse, Thomas has enough rock-star charisma to mount a solo career should

the band go the way of previous flavors of the month.

Still, it's going to be hard to shake that sex-symbol image. If you ask 18-year-

old Jeannine Samartano of Brooklyn why she would go to such lengths to

create a poster for her favorite band and pass it up onstage, she'll tell you

straight out: "They're great and Kyle is so hot."