Almost precisely at nine o’clock on January 30, Matt Costa took the stage at San Diego’s House of Blues and began an extended blues-stomp intro to “Ballad of Miss Kate,” off 2005’s stellar Songs We Sing. Despite clean acoustics and the somewhat intimate venue, it seemed as if the crowd chatter was almost as loud as the band. No performer is necessarily thrilled with this reaction, but Costa didn’t even seem to care.
Maybe as an opening act (especially for the laid-back G. Love and Special Sauce) he’s learned to expect it. Or perhaps his performance more closely mimics the effect of Songs We Sing: first listen reveals some sweet, acoustic-guitar-driven tunes with hints of the Beach Boys, Paul Simon and the Beatles, but after a few tracks you realize it’s more than just surface-level satisfaction-that there’s something special here, something interesting, something worth paying attention to.
In the crowd’s defense, Costa and his four bandmates (he recorded all the instruments on the album himself) were relatively static for the first five or six songs. Not until “Yellow Taxi,” followed by sing-along crowd favorite/album standout “Sunshine” (and a round of shots from a front-row fan), did Costa loosen up and let his personality-quirky, relaxed, with a “how did I get up here” enthusiasm-show. From there, the performance became the sing-along party the largely college-age crowd bought tickets for.
Highlights included a solo performance of “Lullaby” from 2006’s Curious George soundtrack, which sounded full and tender even without Jack Johnson’s backups, and the country-tinged “Sweet Rose,” one of several songs that had the crowd dancing and singing along, if still a bit reserved. The set ended with the full band “na na na” chant of “Miss Magnolia,” but it was the song before-a funky, mature cover of the Band’s “Don’t Do It”-that solidified the show for me.
Costa may not yet be a household name, and for a while he may play the support role, gently singing while the audience settles and gets ready for the headliner. But such an accomplished opening act is a rare thing, and it’s worth the opportunity to hear and see Costa figure out his place and learn how to translate the sunny satisfaction of a great album to the stage.