It used to be that the farther a Matthew Sweet performance strayed from influences like the Beatles or the Byrds in the direction of seminal power pop band Big Star, the more likely it was to appeal mostly to the kind of music wonks featured in the film "High Fidelity." Judging from the diversity and enthusiasm of Wednesday night's packed house at the Tralf, however, Sweet's appeal -- despite or because of his musical fixations -- has grown considerably.
During the course of a 90-minute set covering material from his 10 year-plus career, Sweet, in jeans, black hooded shirt, and trademark Oscar Wilde haircut, displayed the stunning mastery of melodic, guitarcentric rock that's made him a post-punk favorite.
Opening the show with the blistering "Beware My Love" from his 1999 album, "In Reverse," followed by a crunching, uptempo version of his classic "Time Capsule," Sweet served notice that this would be a night of Big Star-style power pop, with the emphasis on power. But it was the layered opening chords of "Divine Intervention," -- from his 1990 breakthrough album "Girlfriend" -- that galvanized the crowd for good.
Changing gears slightly, the band slid into "Untitled" and the melancholy "I've Been Waiting," featuring the gorgeous backing vocals of rhythm guitarist Paul Chastain and bass player Tony Marsico. But the subdued mood wasn't to last.
"This is our "Altered Beast' heavy set," Sweet deadpanned, referring to what is arguably his best album before ripping into "Devil With the Green Eyes." The song, along with "Someone To Pull the Trigger" and "The Ugly Truth," featured the lacerating guitar playing of Peter Phillips who, along with drummer Ric Menck, front critical favorites Velvet Crush, whose last album Sweet produced.
Next was the sprawling, Byrdsy "If Time Permits" and an almost rockabilly "Come To California," complete with Sweet's beloved Beach Boys harmonies and Menck's commanding, nearly pneumatic drum playing.
The show's highpoint was "You Don't Love Me," a song that was a study in the contrasts inherent in Sweet's music. Starting off as a ballad carried on Sweet's plaintive, slightly battered tenor, it somewhere along the line gave way to a torrent of sheer noise, with Phillips peeling a thrashing, feedback-laden solo from the song's dense sonic middle. It was thrilling.
At its most indulgent, Sweet's pop formalism risks inconsequentiality. Live, however, the music has a near-chaotic power that lends resonance to the froth that sometimes mars his albums. It's less cheerful music than you might think. "Girlfriend" and "Sick of Myself" captured the kind of jaded and disaffected weariness -- perfectly set off by the dissonant, meandering counterpoint of Phillips' guitar -- that's the true dark side of Sweet's post-X generation.
An encore featured the exuberant "What Matters" and the epically creepy love song "Winona" (yes, that Winona). Something for everyone.
Opening for Sweet was Atlanta's Josh Joplin Band, playing a set from its newly released debut album "Useful Music." The likeable and talented Joplin led the group through an eclectic set of roots, and even rap-influenced rock filtered through Joplin's wry, post-grad sensibility. Highpoints were the cynical, rocking "Camera One," featuring the vocals and guitar of D. Davis, and the lovely, hit-worthy "I've Changed." The band will appear on David Letterman Friday.