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Matt Nathanson

Matt Nathanson

Last Saturday, Matt Nathanson, a 46-year-old singer-songwriter who has published 10 albums since 1993 and is known for a distinctive blend of folk and rock, performed at the last concert of the 50th anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery’s Summer Concert Series.

While I was waiting to interview Nathanson before the show. I talked to Amy Heathcote who was born in Modesto but has lived in Napa for several years. She said she loved Nathanson’s EP, “Pyromattia,” that consists of covers of Def Leppard songs, especially the song “Hysteria.” “It reminds me of who I was in high school” she said about the album.

She said she used to rock to Def Leppard in her VW Bug growing up in Modesto. “I lived those songs,” she said. But now, at 48, she is up for something more mellow, and acoustic covers of heavy-metal songs she listened to in high school are just the thing. She said, “it fits who I am now. This is what I want to hear now.”

She also said that she was 18 drinking beer in an almond orchard in Modesto, and now she was 48 and drinking wine in a vineyard in Napa, and listening to the same music, but in a different way.

I told Nathanson about Heathcote’s observation, and he loved it. Why his EP of covers was called “Pyromattia” when Def Leppard’s album is called “Pyromania?”

He chuckled and said, “I told my tour manager, ‘I want to do a Def Leppard covers album.’ And he said, ‘you should call it PyroMATTia.’ It was genius,” he said, referring to his replacing “mania” with his own name in the word pyromania.

I told him I had been listening to his song “Faster,” off the 2011 record “Modern Love,” on repeat in my car for three days. The guitar riff is reminiscent of the opening to George Michael’s “Faith” but rather than Michael’s staccato lyrics, you have Nathanson’s yearning—a coquettish, playful, “come hither” sound in his voice, beckoning the subject of the song to come nearer. And the lyrics are just as suggestive:

“Own me you own/you rattle my bones.

You turn me over until I can’t control myself.

You make me a liar/one big disaster.

You make my heart beat faster.”

I asked him what, or who, inspired the song. He said that it wasn’t a person in particular, but rather, “I went through a super sensual [phase]. During the making of ‘Mad Hope,’ the album before ‘Modern Love,’ I was really dialed into that part of myself...I don’t know, 2007 to 2011, I just couldn’t get enough of skin and lips...every time I sat down to write it was like ‘your body pushing against me...’

Things have changed in Nathanson’s style. He opened the concert with “Way Way Back,” the second song off of “Sings His Sad Heart” in 2018.

“Way Way Back” he said was about when you’re still friends with your ex on social media and you see what their life is like now. How do you feel?

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This is most likely not taken from his experience as he is happily married to his wife, Bridget, and they have a daughter.

But he did accentuate the best line in the song with a great flourish on his guitar: “He looks better with his shirt off, yeah, but can he sing?”

Nathanson just released an EP called “Postcards (from Chicago)”—a group of covers of artists from Chicago. Notably it was Richard Marx’s “Hold on to the Nights” that really brought the show to an initial climax.

But then he began to sing:

Was it something I said or something I did

Did the words not come out right

Though I tried not to hurt you

Though I tried

But I guess that’s why they say

And the he went silent and the audience sang, soulfully, “Every rose has its thorn. Just like every night, has its dawn.” This is the song “Every Rose has its Thorn” by Poison that most people who are in their 40s are going to know. They swayed back and forth as Nathanson held court like a king.

Nathanson said that it’s so unfortunate that the whole point of a winery is lost on him. “I don’t drink wine. I’m just not a big fan of it in general, the way it tastes. It’s just sort of how I live.” I was a little incredulous, and gently pressed him about it, but he demurred.

He said he drinks water for dinner. “I don’t drink coffee. I don’t even take aspirin,” he said.

It seems, though, that this clean living, unintoxicated mindset infiltrates his music. It is an unbridled happiness that pervades his body of work, a cheerfulness, a zest for life, that was clear in how he hugged everyone in the green room, how gave me his complete attention, and how he bounced around on stage like a scruffy sprite.

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John Henry Martin regrets not drinking more beer in the almond orchards when he was growing up in the Central Valley. If you did, or did not, let him know about it at jxxhxxm@gmail.com.

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