Matthew Sweet at the Thunderdome

By Mark Clark

The tricky thing about attending a Matthew Sweet concert is that you're never sure who you're going to see.

I mean, sure, Matthew will be there, but who will the sidemen be? The Matthew Sweet concert you saw six months ago could be completely different now, depending on the support personnel.

Case in point: Sweet in concert May 14 at the Brewery's Thunderdome. Two-thirds of his backing trio had changed since his last Louisville appearance, opening for Melissa Etheridge at Louisville Gardens last fall. Drummer Stuart Johnson was on hand to percussion with the same energy he provides Sweet's Zoo Entertainment labelmates, Love Jones. (And it was Stu's birthday, as Matthew pointed out repeatedly.) But the big difference was Ivan Julian's presence, replacing first-call guitarist Richard Lloyd.

Lloyd's eccentric, distortion-soaked solos were half the fun of Sweet's performance last fall (and an integral part of all three of Sweet's acclaimed Zoo albums). Without him, Sweet's opening number, "Sick of Myself," sounded like a demo version of the album track -- thin, meek.

But as the band began to settle in, running through selections like "I've Been Waiting," "Ugly Truth Rocks," and "Come to Love," other virtues came to the fore to replace Lloyd's absent solos -- Johnson's feisty drums, Sweet's underrated vocals. And whatever Julian lacks as a soloist (at least when compared to Lloyd) he made up for with sizzling performances on groove-oriented numbers like "Divine Intervention" and "Girlfriend," which sent the near-sellout crowd into a pogo frenzy.

If nothing else, Lloyd's absence made fans appreciate even more the brilliance of Sweet's songs, which would sound terrific even if he were backed by two chimpanzees on kazoo.

Sweet hauled out his acoustic guitar for heart-melting versions of "Winona," a fan favorite from his breakthrough LP Girlfriend, and "I Almost Forgot," one of several cuts offered from his new release, 100 Percent Fun. The new material held its own even against competition like "Winona," with the crowd warmly embracing tunes like "Super Baby" and "Walk Out."

The 90-minute, 19-song set concluded with a blistering version of another Girlfriend favorite, "Does She Talk?"

As an aside: Sweet's 1970s obsession continues unabated. The souvenir booth at the concert was strewn with '70s memorabilia, including a Donnie and Marie jigsaw puzzle, a Charlie's Angels board game and a Shawn Cassidy pin-up. One of his tour shirts featured the cover of his new record on an 8-track tape, another had the name of the album spelled out on a Lite Brite.

The Poster Children offered a longish (60-minute) opening set that was boisterous but forgettable.