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The Thorns
Bland on the run

Whenever you put a few guys who are used to fronting their own bands together on a stage or in the studio, there’s a good possibility sparks will fly. There are good sparks — the creative ones that bring out the best in each artist. And there are the bad — the ones that cause egos to flare up. But with the Thorns, a singer-songwriter collaboration of Shawn Mullins, Matthew Sweet, and Pete Droge who released a homonymous CD earlier this year on Aware/Columbia, sparks were the last thing that seemed likely in a lethargic headlining set a week ago Wednesday at the Paradise.

Backed by a drummer, a bassist, and a keyboard player, the trio started the evening energetically enough, with an inspired rendition of their de facto themesong "Thorns," a tune that highlighted Sweet’s uncanny ability to imitate Graham Nash in the group’s three-part harmonies. The result brought to mind alterna-country moonlighters Golden Smog (a group featuring Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as well as members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Run Westy Run). But whereas Golden Smog have always had their tongues planted firmly in cheek, it was hard to tell how seriously the Thorns take themselves or want to be taken. They were in good spirits as they joked with the crowd about, among other things, their recent stint opening for the Dixie Chicks. But that rapport didn’t carry over to the songs: "No Blue Sky" was so bland, it could have been background music for an ad about a couple buying their first home, and "Among the Living" came off as perfect for the slow-dance portion of a 15-year high-school reunion.

The easy-listening æsthetic extended to "Long Sweet Summer Night," a dull, mid-tempo number that had the laid-back quality of two weeks on the Vineyard without the surf and sand. None of the three stars seemed willing to take the reins and steer the group out of the rut they’d settled into. And the audience didn’t seem to mind. But Droge, Mullins, and Sweet could have learned something from opener Kathleen Edwards’s set: she was spunky and irrepressible, full of energy and enthusiasm, and armed with an excellent cover of Tom Petty’s "Face in the Crowd."


Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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