BETHLEHEM, PA—The well-heeled Sands crowd, probably impatient to gamble, and forced to endure nine songs in 40 minutes from opening act Plain White T’s, was sitting on their hands for the first 15 minutes of the big Rob Thomas concert. The Matchbox 20 and Santana singer couldn’t have liked that. He was working hard. Opener “Give Me The Meltdown” had him desperately attempting to connect with the audience. The 43-year-old was almost losing his breath trying to keep up with his crack five-piece band. Ultimately, he would win them over, but it would take going out into the audience to practically sit on the laps of the wives-night-out club kind of crowd to elicit some sort of passion. Two hours later, he was still at it, sweating like a racehorse after croaking out 22 songs. But at this point, 15 minutes in, he looked out into the crowd, scowled, and lambasted them.

“If you’re too cool to sing and dance and have a good time, then get the fuck out.”

But he said it nicely.

Properly chastised , the young girls up front, the couples dressed to the nines, the old girls in the cheap seats, and the curious who came to see a pop star, as if a switch had been turned on, were all now simultaneously demonstrative. The songs from new CD The Great Unknown were even going over, despite, uh, being unknown. Of course, a heartfelt “3:00 A.M.” proved to be the turning point (he even quoted Steve Miller’s “The Joker” during the song). Material from his first two solo CDs, which hit #1 and #3 respectively, were also winners. (He made sure to tell his salivating fans that, no, Matchbox 20 was not broken up.) But, for the most part, he stayed away from the songs associated with his day job.

He had been rehearsing in Weehawken for this gig. It even looked as if he had been practicing his dance steps even though the dude can’t dance. But now that the crowd was his, he loosened up enough to let his obvious talents come to the fore. He certainly didn’t look like a husband whose wife had brain surgery. He looked like a soap opera star moonlighting with some guys in the garage…and that’s a compliment. Taking away the glitz and glamour of his obvious appeal, Thomas can sing. His voice held strong all night and he knew when to turn the theatrics on and off.

That’s show biz, baby.

Now he was rockin’! “O little town Bethlehem [it was his third time here], you guys don’t feel like a Tuesday night. I like that.” Bathed in the warm glow of his compliment, they, indeed, sang and danced along. He noticed. So he swung his mic stand dangerously close to his bandmates during “Fallin’ To Pieces” and literally skipped across the stage for “Real World ’09.”

You need dynamics at a big pop show like this so when he slowed it down for “Ever The Same,” accompanied by only the sound of piano/guitar and bathed in an eerie pink spotlight, there was a kind of a hush. He felt so good now he attempted to cover Bowie. “Let’s Dance” had that great band of his truly approximating The Thin White Duke’s groove. (He also covered Madonna’s “Borderline.”) “Streetcar Symphony” rambled on for over nine minutes.

“Smooth” and ”This Is How A Heart Breaks” ended the show on a nostalgic note. The guy’s a pro.

Upcoming at the Sands: Joe Walsh (9/26), Grace Potter (10/2), Smokey Robinson (10/9), Pat Benatar (10/17).

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