I recently saw singer/songwriter Rob Thomas perform in Durham, NC, and the guy knows how to connect with his audience—he should! He’s been in the public eye since 1998 when Matchbox Twenty’s hits “3 A.M.,” “Push,” and “Real World,” hit it big. Rob’s had two solo albums since then and is currently working on a third coming out January 2015. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me I’m a huge fan of Rob Thomas—in fact I’ve met him twice in person—and the reason he has so many hardcore fans (besides me) is because he consistently does these five things:
1. Use humor. Rob shares stage stories before playing his hits. Please get this guy an HBO special! At his show he shared the “behind the music” for his songs, revealing to those who didn’t know that “3 A.M.” was about his mom who was struggling with cancer when Rob was 12 and “Little Wonders” is about his late dog, Tyler, who was in such a good mood about life, while his master wasn’t. Rob’s humor is effective because there’s so much truth in it. For example, he told us that he doesn’t do the “encore thing” of leaving the stage and then coming back. He asks, “Why play this game with you?” Also, he made fun of some folks in the front row who showed up late by reading off the songs they missed from his set list taped to the floor. Then he said, “You even missed Carlos Santana!” (which they clearly didn’t)
2. It’s OK to Make Mistakes. Now I’m not saying be unprepared and incompetent, but it’s OK to make a boo-boo and then say you did so. Rob had a timing issue and also hit a wrong note. Both times he said, “Hey, that was bad. I believe in full transparency,” which made his audience love him even more. Doing so helps make you more real to your audience!
3. Give Your Audience What it Wants. Speakers always need to consider what’s in it for the audience. Rob Thomas knows his audience wants to have fun as well as hear both his solo hits as well as his hits with Matchbox Twenty. He delivered and also played a few songs on piano—his main instrument. He only played one new song and didn’t play any songs from the new Matchbox Twenty album, North, which sucked. I was amazed that it was totally cool to take flash photos and record the event. After the concert, Rob stuck around and signed autographs by the loading dock and made sure everyone got a photo and signature before he departed. I could see that his handlers were getting antsy. But you don’t have to pander to your audience. When an audience member shouted out a request to Rob, he said, “This isn’t request hour; it’s the shut up and listen hour!”
4. Share Vulnerabilities. Before he started playing on the piano, Rob shared that it was tough growing up in South Carolina in the ‘80s when boys his age were all about guns, cars and sports. He sported a Billy Idol punk hair-do and said everyone thought he was gay. However, he knew how to play piano and sing Lionel Ritchie songs and used these skills to his advantage at house parties to pick up girls. Rob also shared how he collaborated with Mick Jagger and how Jagger must have thought Matchbox Twenty’s commercial success was “cute” since they only sold 20 million records. Sharing your weaknesses allows your audience to see the real you.
5. Be Authentic and Grateful. Your audience will know right away if you’re phoning in your performance and going through the motions. Give every gig 110 percent even if you’re not getting paid or if your audience has three people in it. This was my third time seeing Rob in concert and he keeps getting better and better. Rob banters with his audience like chatting with him one-on-one at the bar. Plus, he’s so generous and grateful for his fans. In fact, he looked me in the eye when he signed his autograph and said, “Thank you.”
I also want to add that Rob Thomas and his wife, Mari, run The Sidewalk Angels Foundation, their non-profit which supports and funds grassroots no-kill shelters and animal rescues all across the country. All of the profits from the T-shirt sales went directly to his non-profit—it’s so important to give back!
Guess who’s going to be the first in line when his new album comes out?
Rob Thomas’s set list from DPAC, Durham, NC, 5/1/14
1. This Is How a Heart Breaks
2. Fallin’ to Pieces
3. Sunday Morning, New York Blue
4. Her Diamonds
5. New Song
6. Getting Late
8. Ever the Same
9. Streetcorner Symphony
10. You Won’t Be Mine
11. No One Is To Blame
12. Lonely No More
13. 3 A.M.
19. Bright Lights