Nostalgia sells. When it comes to the music industry with its dwindling sales numbers, it means repackaging and remastering and redoing the good stuff that folks took a liking to back in the so-called day. And for artists who are still recording new material, nostalgia often means doing the whole "playing a classic album in its entirety" tour while flogging the just-released record.
Matthew Sweet is in that boat, having had middling success in the last 12 years or so with his albums as well as his covers records with Susanna Hoffs. He released the fine Modern Art last year, but started touring to commemorate Girlfriend's 20th anniversary because, let's face it, that's what people want to hear. Sweet came through Boston this past Tuesday, playing 1991's Girlfriend album front to back at the Paradise. The show wasn't sold out, but it was pretty damn close, and there were plenty of folks in my age demographic (i.e., old) in the house.
Sweet, 47, is definitely a little larger and grayer than the last time I saw him play, which was twice in 1997. But he was in fine voice and good spirits as he led his band through the power pop classic's 15 songs. The rhythm section was the same one he used on Girlfriend, bassist Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck, who also played in Providence's Velvet Crush (a fine power pop act in its own right); guitarist Dennis Taylor had the huge task of replicating the solos laid down on Girlfriend by Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, but he was terrific. Sweet, who played rhythm guitar, gave him plenty of room to solo all over everything, and Taylor complied, while Chastain and Menck held the beat down.
Despite the poppy crunch of the title track, Girlfriend is a fairly dark album, not surprising given Sweet wrote it after a messy divorce. But it really resonated with the alt-rock audience of the early '90s. Songs like "Thought I Knew You," "You Don't Love Me," "Don't Go" and "Nothing Lasts" are not your average pop fare, but there were plenty of folks singing every word Tuesday night. The soft acoustic edges of songs like "I Wanted to Tell You" were gone, replaced by muted electrics but no less effective.
My first exposure to the album was hearing "Divine Intervention" on WFNX and then going to see Sweet open for Robyn Hitchcock at the old Avalon on Lansdowne Street in February 1992. This time around, I knew a lot more about Sweet and certainly knew the album inside out. Sweet shared some stories about the album, which originally ended with the ballad "Your Sweet Voice." But after his label had some difficulties, Sweet said he decided to add three bonus tracks to the album proper, namely the raunchy "Does She Talk?", the somewhat prescient "Holy War" and "Nothing Lasts."
After the final track of the album, Sweet joked that he didn't want to close out the night on such a depressing note, so the band launched into "Sick of Myself," an uptempo, if self-deprecating, number from 1995's 100% Fun album. It really did perk things up; I noticed one of the security guys singing along and cracking up at the numerous false stops at the end. After a quick break, Sweet and band returned to play "She Walks the Night" from his most recent album, the excellent "Time Capsule" from 1993's Altered Beast and "We're the Same" from 100% Fun. Hopefully, some of the assembled concertgoers went over to buy Modern Art from the merch table, but I'm sure Sweet's not expecting huge sales. People were there to go retro and remember what they were doing 20 years ago when they were listening to Girlfriend, and that's okay. At this point, it's nice to see artists like Sweet still drawing decent crowds.