Matt Pless at the 2640 Space. Shot By Tom Kessler.
Baltimore’s Matt Pless has opened for bands you know: Rilo Kiley, the Ataris, Fallout Boy, Maroon 5. He’s played clubs, cafes, Occupy Wall Street (and Occupy elsewhere), Vans Warped Tour, his third grade class. But the shows he loves playing the most are small and intimate. “There is a better connection with people in these environments,” he said, “and the folks who attend these types of shows always seem to have a tendency to listen, support, and be respectful of the performers, as [opposed] to the type of crowd you would play for in a loud and talkative bar.”
I met Matt at the 2640 Space, which is in a radical church on St Paul Street. It’s the kind of spot he likes. On Sunday, July 15th, Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse helped to arrange a lineup chock full of shoutable folk punk. Ramshackle Glory (of Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains and Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union) headlined, causing a ruckus appreciated by many who were excited to see their frontman, Pat the Bunny, finally out of rehab and clean. Towson native Ryan Harvey preceded them with his earnest protest songs and personal, political anecdotes. Matt Pless opened.
As a leftist and a singer who can play the shit out of “Two-Headed Boy” (and not much else), I’m sort of partial to folk punk singer-songwriters—often, young men (sometimes women, but usually men) with acoustic guitars covered in Sharpie’d slogans and empowering, if cliche, lyrics wrought with progressive idealism. I’ve seen so many of these guys in so many places. Some are amazing. Some are mediocre. Amongst the many, however, Matt Pless certainly holds his own. He’s clever, he’s earnest, and he’s nice to listen to.
His hyper catchy blend of pop, folk, punk, and roots rock has super simple chord progressions at its base. His melodies are ridiculously singable. I could hum them all after just a first listen. I could probably even hum the harmonica parts. And his lyrics are remarkably witty. Matt sings about America, addiction, freedom, the internet, falling in love, wars, the rich, the poor. But he’s always got a solid rhyme scheme and bunch of lines that pack a punch.
Whether he’s being cynical or romantic, Matt always seems to want to make a statement. When I asked him how he viewed the potential of art and music to create societal and structural change, he told me that “the answer is always very simple,” that “we seem to be much more touched and moved by this expression because it is something you can feel much deeper than just reading or talking.” Others must agree, because last year, he was picked up for Occupy Wall Street’s Occupy This Album. I heard the tune that the benefit album featured, “Something’s Gotta Give,” on the internet and then at 2640. I was touched by the simplicity of its message of compassion and togetherness. “May we come together when we fall apart,” Matt sang, and I really wanted to believe that whoever we are, we may.
Matt didn’t always play solo, acoustic stuff. He started his first band at 17. Three Pronged Outlet played power pop. “I started playing solo when I felt like things were changing…one day I woke up and I felt like I was someplace else…so I went with it…I don’t want to be stuck in a box forever of any kind,” he said. This vagueness in speaking of specifics is characteristic of Matt’s self-description.
Matt’s a skeptic, but in many respects, that’s a product of his romanticization and idealism. His talking blues song about the internet (featuring gems of lines, by the way. “Twitter my Yahoo and I’ll do it all over your Facebook”? I can’t make this stuff up, but Matt can), for instance, mourns the loss of a simpler time, and laments the spread misinformation and utter nonsense that the ego-boosting World Wide Web can beget.
I asked Matt if he thought that the internet was a key factor in his current success. “How do you define success? Am I successful?” I honestly don’t believe he meant to be difficult in his lack of response. His questions—and inability to answer them—are completely fair. But he’s not afraid to voice opinions when he holds them. If nothing else, Matt writes what he knows. He knows political frustration, love, hope and the loss of it. He knows infectious rhythms and rhyme schemes. And apparently, he knows all of them well enough to charm an audience.
Matt will be back in the area on August 18th for What Weekly sponsored Hot August Blues Fest. Check him out. He’s worth seeing.
Screenshot of Matt Pless from Video by Tom Kessler