Sit back and grab a coke because this is going to be a long one.
As many ‘ethnic’ people in the U.S. know, it’s not easy being in two worlds. There’s always a sense of duality and differentness. Do you belong to one people group or another? Are you more American or more [insert racial background here]? Sometimes earlier generations make this decision for us, raising us in a “traditional” style that somewhat alienates children from their current environment, or opting for a more assimilated style of rearing in which cultural ties are slowly decayed until ultimately lost.
I’m pretty sure I’m in the latter group, although the line is fuzzy. My mom, as any devout Hispanic Catholic mother would, often kept my brother and I from doing things that were too American and might, thereby lead us to sin in her mind. She told us that we weren’t American, we were better than American. But we never associated with other often closely-knit Hispanic communities, and she would turn up her nose in disgust whenever people displayed flags indicating their culture of origin. We’re not like THOSE people, she would tell us.
This left me with an inherent moral dilemma. My mother, the one who bore and raised me, who breathed life into my bones and taught me the art of stories had defined my life story as being neither American nor Hispanic. Being a devout Catholic, I also hated myself because every step was a sin, in my naive sense of theology I was sure of it. Thus being so alienated from my peer group and every culture, I convinced myself I would never be loved by anyone and therefore I could not be married. So, at the ripe age of fourteen, I decided I would become a nun.
After a briefly zealous induction into a Southern Baptist church and an equally zealous reversal into agnosticism, the fact that I ever considered becoming a nun is absurd to me now. However, somewhere in my troubled teen life where I was both dealing with societal exile, an incurable and embarrassing skin disorder and an as of yet undiagnosed mood disorder, music breathed a world of relief and hope into my battered mind.
I can still remember first hearing the song on the radio, in the days before Youtube and iPods, back when MTV and VH1 still played music on the air. There was an opening wail of an electric guitar gliding above a driving drumbeat. The guitar waned in and out accompanied by a piano playing a series of chords I can play with my eyes shut, the harmonic progression of my people. The only word for this sense that comes about when you hear the voice of your people is “orgullo.” It translates into “pride” but feels so much more powerful to me in my mother tongue.
When the chorus of this riveting, tantalizing song came in, I was swept away. The voice, a very much American and non-Hispanic man went on about the beauty and complexities of moody, volatile Hispanic women. I could have died. Here, here were the words that understood me so well! And not only did it give me a small sense of identity and belonging, something which I so desperately needed, but it painted us beautiful. Not the shallow kind of solely sex-driven beautiful that is always all over the media, pressuring the many of us who don’t fit the stereotype in the least, but the lyrics of this song reached into the soul and heart of Hispanic nature. And it made me feel, for the first time, like I could be something beautiful.
The song I’m talking about, of course, is “Smooth” where Carlos Santana* showcased and aided the career of a very young Rob Thomas. The latter musician then went on with his bandmates at Matchbox Twenty to produce album after album after album, even to this day. However, at the time, that honestly didn’t matter much to me.
Then she gave me the cd. We were sitting in anatomy class, and I can’t remember why she decided to give it to me in the first place. Maybe I had been talking about how much I love the song “Smooth,” even if I didn’t entirely understand why at the time. The case was cracked, but the cd wasn’t scratched and still ran well in my stereo. If it were a book, I would say I read it cover to cover. Something about the words, the words understood me more than people did.
I ended up buying every album they had. I was never much of a fan girl, wanting to be a nun and all, but something about Matchbox Twenty’s music spoke so deeply to my core that I couldn’t let it go. They were with me through nights of prayer. They were with me through studying for exams and reading for classes. They were with my before my first car crash- in fact, my radio refused to play the next track about ten minutes before my poor little silver 2000 Volkswagen Beetle was crushed like a bug. They’ve been with me through every crush, every break up, every piano performance, every day of teaching, through everything.
Naturally, when my brother told me late last year that they’d be coming to Savannah as part of their North Winter Tour, I about hatched an egg. Through decades of rigid piano rehearsal, choral rehearsals, classical concerts, jazz concerts and general musical study, I had never, EVER been to a rock concert. And I never, EVER thought they’d come down here. Ever. I immediately bought a ticket for myself and my brother [an outstanding musician in his own right], and surprised him with the news later.
When it came to the actual night of the concert, I was a complete wreck. Relationships were getting strained at work, I had been through no less than six suicidal bouts, and my brother was super anxious over his master’s composition recital. In fact, there is absolutely no way I would have even made it to the concert without my brother. Downtown Savannah was already crowded with tourists getting ready for St. Patrick’s day celebrations, and all of my fears about being seen in public by people I know, getting into car crashes and being around strangers were in full force. Somehow, despite all my anxieties [both rational and irrational], we wound up in our seats.
That’s when Matt Hires took the stage. I immediately picked out which two bandmates were brothers, something which soothed and calmed me because I had also grown up in a family of musicians. Being able to create music with kin is an indescribably wonderful experience, so I prodded my brother on the knee and pointed out the brothers. Then we shared one of our quiet grins, the kind where we don’t have to talk because we’ve known each other our whole lives. That, too, is indescribably wonderful, and I was proud to have been able to share this moment with my little brother.
The music which Matt Hire’s band played was hauntingly familiar, and at points I found myself already memorizing choruses and softly singing along- even harmonizing. Prior to the start of the concert, their bassist had taken the stage and practiced a few runs on his instrument. I could sympathize with the pre-concert excitement, the need to get everything just right.
They also came across to me as a relatively young band. Though members were fluent in several instruments, I could tell [by my own training] that they weren’t always masters of them. Part of that may be from the self-admitted pre-St. Paddy’s day celebrations, but the eyes-glued-to-where-fingers-are-going thing kind of gave it away. Did they play wrong notes, bad chords or sing out of key? Absolutely not. Their songs were elegantly lyrical in a singer-songwriter kind of way and, had the crowd had a more confident sense of who was actually performing, I think many listeners would have been spell-bound.
However, when Matchbox Twenty came on the stage, the crowd immediately leaped to its feet. This was somewhat unfortunate for my brother and I, as well as the eleven year old girl who wound up sitting next to me, because we are all incredibly tiny. I don’t even clear five feet. All things considered, though, we WERE in the seventh row [starting after the VIP section] and if I held my camera high enough and used the zoom, I could see everything clearly. And what I saw was amazing.
I hadn’t realized until that night how many other people Matchbox Twenty had affected, or even how much they had impacted my own life. I knew every single word to all but four songs they performed over two and a half hours. A college-aged girl a few rows behind me also commented that this was her first concert ever. There were teenagers and older adults bopping around alike.
Yet the band’s reach, like their lyrics, goes a few levels deeper than surface value. They truly sang through their instruments, literally conversing with one another with both excellent showmanship and great respect. You could tell that this was a group of musicians that had listened to each other and grown with each other, experimenting with new sounds rather than stagnating- all without losing their identity.
Identity. There’s that word again. At the beginning of the concert, above roars and screams, Rob Thomas described the tone he wanted to set for the concert. We were there to share a moment. As people. As human beings. And we were there to celebrate life. As someone, again, who struggles often with mood disorders and suicidal thoughts, this call to celebrate life rather than give in to it was a phenomenal thought for me to take in. Not only that, but you could tell, here, too, was a man who had been changed by his music, his wife and his fans over time. There is something almost reverent about the way we sang, danced and generally, in every sense of the word, celebrated- and I was at times taken back to my short stint as an evangelical Christian. It had every fiber of excitement of a worship service, but not in a heretical sense. We were praising joy, music and life itself.
Both Kyle Cook and Rob Thomas commented on the fact that Savannah was their first official southern concert and proudly described themselves as southern boys. This, of course, elicited a roar of applause, but it gave me a sense of pride, as well. Perhaps after all these years, despite the many moves all over the world, I, too, have become a southerner. Though this is an idea I am still wrestling with, the sense of emerging identity is one filled with warmth and celebration.
Exuding that warmth, the band has reached out to their fans through various social media outlets, inviting them to share pictures and experiences. This, of course, meant that many a cell phone was waved in the air, grabbing as much footage as it could.
At one point during one of Kyle Cook’s solos, Rob Thomas reached down into the VIP section and took somebody’s cellphone, recording all around Kyle as he played as well as the entire band and audience from the stage’s viewpoint. Paul Doucette would often strut onto the side stairs while playing a stringed instrument, or he’d bang the toms as flamboyantly as my ex-boyfriend played the bongos- hands reacting to rebound by bounding well up to the shoulders before crashing down again. This juxtaposition of harmony and anger, quirkiness and mastery is part of what makes them so lovable.
After multiple standing ovations, Matchbox Twenty decided to close with a nod to Georgia’s musical heritage. They broke into the opening strains of a familiar REM song, (“from back when they were good, as my musically astute brother noted”) when the music jerkingly ground to a halt as Rob Thomas let loose a slew of harsh words. Though I, and other fans who have exchanged stories over Twitter, are still not entirely certain as to what happened, it seems that an inebriated audience member had begun causing trouble- and perhaps harm to fellow audience members.
After the tense moment was cleared and the offender taken safely away by security, Rob Thomas did something that most artists wouldn’t even think about doing. He apologized to the many little ears in the audience for the profanity. I think that says a great deal about Matchbox Twenty as a group: a true musician makes every effort to respect the listener’s ears whether in harmony or in silence, in music or in words.
Much peace to each of the band members, technicians and families involved. I hope you have a safe tour and that the album “North” continues to garnish success.
* See first few comments for a discussion on this.