Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic

It’s rehearsal day, and the ever-punctual Sting waits onstage at Carnegie Hall for the maestro to appear.

Ah, there he is now, striding out of the wings, an amiable, generously proportioned fellow in blue jeans and a red pullover: Rob Mathes of Cos Cob, Connecticut.

Mathes gives Sting a hearty embrace and takes a moment to absorb, once again, the mythic surroundings. Thirty years ago he watched his idol Leonard Bernstein conduct Mahler’s Ninth here. In his mind’s eye, he sees twenty-one-year-old Rob up in the plush red dark of the second tier, gazing down at the hallowed stage where his present self now stands, bathed in light, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in front of him and Sting—Sting!—and his band beside him. If he thinks about it too long… Everybody’s done tuning up and coughing, and they’ve fixed their eyes upon the man at the conductor’s podium.

“We’re going to go in order,” Mathes announces, and strikes the air with his baton. A sinuous clarinet, a brisk plucking of strings, and then that arresting high tenor voice: “I don’t drink coffee, I take tea, my dear…” With liquid ease, Sting runs through “Englishman in New York,” his ode to remaining true to oneself no matter the social weathers. Sting will lead off tonight’s gala performance with this song—aptly, since he himself is a native of northeast England who keeps an apartment on Central Park West.

Mathes nods with satisfaction. “That’s the vibe,” he tells the orchestra, and then turns to Sting. “Good?”

Sting, now sixty-four, looks imperially fit in his white T-shirt, slim black vest and Romanov beard. “I’m happy,” he says, seeming to glow without changing expression.

Mathes, Sting and company launch into the Police megahit “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” Mathes is an emotive conductor in the Bernstein manner, coaxing the sound he wants with a series of rhythmic, crouching dance steps, sweeping arm movements, whole-body sways and soulful chin thrusts. “It’s better for me to err on the side of excess,” he’ll explain later, as if it were possible for him to conduct any other way. “I’m just not a reserved sort of guy.”

Mathes brings the players to a sudden halt.

“When he does that—” he tells the orchestra after Sting commences a verse a jot too soon.

“I won’t do that!” Sting says, grinning.

Next they play the Sting-written classics “Fields of Gold,” “King of Pain” and “Every Breath You Take,” as well as some lesser- known Sting beauties: “Mad About You,” “I Hung My Head,” “The Last Ship,” “Shape of My Heart,” and a Middle Eastern-tinged “Desert Rose,” which, a few hours hence, will have the packed house dancing in the aisles.

At lunch break, Mathes pulls on a gray topcoat and heads to a Starbucks across the street. It’s a not-cold day in mid-December, and the city, though burdened with clouds, shines with seasonal optimism. As Mathes crosses 56th Street, he seems suddenly exhausted and mentions that he’s been fighting off a cold. “But the music invigorates me,” he adds.

The fatigue owes partly to his punishing work schedule. He spent late November writing orchestrations for Bono and the Edge, embellishing timeless U2 anthems like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “One” for a concert to celebrate ten years of work by ONE and (RED), the nonprofits Bono founded to fight poverty and disease. And on December 1 at Carnegie Hall, before an audience including Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Bill Gates, he conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a Congolese choir as Bono sang and the Edge played guitar, thinking all the while, “What the hell is going on? This can’t really be happening.”

The singer pitched into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” for which Mathes had written an Aaron Copland-like string arrangement. As Bono unfurled the lyric “I have climbed the highest mountain…” Rob could not help but reel at the memory of performing the same song back in the eighties at a smoky, beery Jimmy’s Seaside off Exit 9 in Stamford. As if in a dream of perfect wish fulfillment, Mathes then heard Bono giving him a grateful shout-out as the audience applauded. “I was flabbergasted,” Mathes says, “and am still.”

After that heady gig, Mathes prepared for today’s rehearsal and tonight’s concert. Just four days later would come the focal point and highlight of Mathes’s year: his annual pair of Christmas concerts at Purchase College, for which he is regionally famous. Amid all this, he’s releasing an album of his own work, Wheelbarrow, a set of bluesy rock songs, many of them spirituals, written and recorded over the last decade.

For the past six years, his professional attention has largely been devoted to Sting. “When I’m working with him, I’m incredibly careful, almost to a fault,” he says, even though the two have grown close. “I didn’t get a picture with him for a year and a half. It’s like, ‘I am your musical bodyguard. I’ve got your back. I’m only going to be a problem solver.’”

Sting took Mathes into his confidence on the advice of Christopher Roberts, the influential head of Universal Music Group’s Classics and Jazz divisions. It was supposed to be a limited engagement. Sting wanted to revamp some of his songs for an upcoming tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. “I still remember when I played him the intro I did for ‘Roxanne’ on the piano, and I saw Sting turn around to his manager, Kathy Schenker, and Kathy smiled,” Mathes says. “And I got the sense that he ‘clocks’ me—he gets that I get him.”

Mathes has worked with Sting ever since. “I call him my lion,” Sting has said. “He’s an extraordinary musician, a piano player, a guitar player, an arranger with an incredible knowledge of music and a deep understanding of my music.” For Sting’s 2010 album Symphonicities, a recasting of Police and Sting songs with an orchestra, Mathes arranged, conducted, played piano and guitar, sang backing vocals, and coproduced—a rare bounty of world-class gifts. And for Sting’s 2013 album and 2014 musical The Last Ship, Mathes did all those things plus cowrote four exquisite songs. On Broadway the musical, about the dying shipbuilding culture around Newcastle, proved a commercial disappointment. But in a sort of delayed reaction, The Last Ship is beginning to overspill its cultish circle of admirers. Sting earned a Tony nomination for the score and Mathes earned one for the orchestrations. Now there are whispers of a relaunching in London.

A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
Mathes long ago made his reputation as a musical renaissance man. It was the late Phil Ramone—producer of records for Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra—who set him on his way after hearing arrangements and songs he’d written (including the title track) for Vanessa Williams’s highly regarded 1996 Christmas album, Star Bright. Since then, Mathes has done orchestral arrangements for Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Lou Reed, Beck and Aretha Franklin; produced recordings for Rod Stewart and Carly Simon; composed songs recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville and Faith Hill; and written Emmy-nominated scores for the HBO documentaries Thurgood and Herblock: The Black and The White. Mathes’s specialty, though, is a kind of artistic heavy lifting for which almost nobody else is qualified: musically directing star-blazoned events from “We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial” (2009), to The Papal Concert at Madison Square Garden (2015), to the Kennedy Center Honors (2003–2014) for which he won an Emmy in 2012. (Though Mathes has made his own luck, he is lavish in his praise of benefactors like Michael Stevens, who produced the Kennedy Center Honors and directed Thurgood and Herblock. Stevens died of cancer last October at age forty-eight.)

Do these monumental shows make him nervous? “Right up until we start playing, I’m an anxious wreck. A complete anxious wreck! Once the music starts, it’s my reason for being.” Consider in particular Ann and Nancy Wilson’s now-legendary performance of “Stairway to Heaven” at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. As the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin look on with rising interest, Mathes can be seen at stage left in a shimmery black suit, joining Nancy Wilson on acoustic guitar. A string section eases in, then a small female choir, then horns, and finally a massive youth choir on risers at the rear of the stage. As the song builds toward its climax, Mathes—still strapped to his guitar—turns to conduct the choir until his outstretched arms signal the sustained heavenly note on which this “Stairway” ends.

Giving rock songs an orchestral makeover is always perilous. Usually it blunts and sweetens, robbing songs of the dimension it seeks to add. This arrangement, however, was pure Mathes: full-bodied to be sure, yet also lithe, clean and bold. But what did Zeppelin think? Witness the clever camera work (watchable on YouTube), cutting back and forth between the stage and Plant, Page and Jones, who can barely contain their delight. At one point, Jimmy Page lets fly a four-letter word (not “luck”); at another, both Plant and Page appear to shed tears. Mathes reports, “Robert Plant came up to me at the party afterward and said, ‘I like that song again. Thank you.’ That’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had.”

Then there is the matter of Rob Mathes’s solo career. One might say that he is agreeably cursed with a voracious musical appetite and backhandedly blessed with the ability to write and perform any genre with absurd fluency. As Chris Roberts said when recommending Mathes to Sting, “He sang Police songs in bars when he was a kid, but he also understands Mahler and Stravinsky.”

Listening to him talk now, one hears a stream of passionate appreciation for everyone from Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (“Nobody else had that foot! The way he played that bass drum was uncanny”) to Radiohead (“‘In Rainbows’ showed me what possibilities still exist in the rock medium; it’s a masterpiece”) to Stravinsky and Shakespeare and the mystery of genius (“You can read the score of ‘The Rite of Spring,’ but you can’t get near it. You can memorize King Lear, but you can’t touch it. You can’t. They’re magic.”) His love of art often flows outside of music and into theater and novels and poetry. He would gladly talk about the late poet Philip Levine (“my secular scripture”) deep into the night.

The rub is this: Mathes himself had set out to be a popular music star. No doubt he had the chops, the ambition, and the artistic intelligence. The problem—if it can be called a problem—was that his multifaceted talent clouded the issue of his artistic identity. Rock? Jazz? Blues? Orchestral songs? He wrote and performed all of the above. That made him hard to get a handle on in a field that loves handles. Last November Rob’s wife, Tammy, gave voice to Rob’s curious dilemma on Facebook: “When we first married, I used to tell Rob that he shouldn’t be such a butterfly; he was interested in every genre, instrument, composer, decade and century, etc. I thought it best to focus on one aspect for his career.” But, she added, “he clearly didn’t take my young advice and I have to admit, his obsessions have served him well.”

Whether Rob is equally reconciled to his capricious muse is not immediately clear, but his countenance grows a little dark as he considers the question. “I think the best spin I can put on it—while still allowing you into the troubled psyche I have about it—is that we are who we are,” he says. And who is that? The answer must begin with what Rob calls “The Quartet”—his parents, Joan and George Mathes, and his aunt and uncle, Joyce and Arthur “Skip” Kelley. The two families were bound together by many ties—their Christian faith, their Old Greenwich addresses, George and Skip’s teaching careers in town, and above all by their abiding love of music. Joan is a classical pianist; George is a virtuoso clarinetist and a retired band teacher; Joyce (Joan’s twin sister) is a bassoonist; and Skip, who died in 2009, played lead trombone for Sammy Kaye’s band before settling into his math-teaching career.

The families formed a kind of musical hothouse, and in it, Rob was the rare bloom. “Uncle Skip loved Sinatra, loved Ellington. He was always saying, ‘You need a jazz guitar teacher, you’ve got to learn about jazz.’ My mom was on me all the time to practice Bach. I had to learn the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Major, the Chopin Revolutionary étude, the Chopin ‘Ocean’ etude… . And my dad was a classical clarinetist who played with the Greenwich Symphony, but he said he was a secret hillbilly. He loved Dylan, he loved Peter, Paul and Mary. All these strands of music! And that’s what you know. So, you are who you are.

“Now, within that cloistered environment, my folks told me I was a genius,” Mathes continues. “I honestly think I’m a very, very good musician, but genius is a terrible word and should only be used in regard to Bernstein, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, Wagner… . But it ended up being fuel once I realized how the world worked.”

That dizzying moment came in the fall of 1981, when Mathes arrived at the celebrated Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I show up with a good amount of technique on the guitar, a decent piano player, and, having written a ton of songs in high school [at Greenwich High], a clear tenor voice with good pitch. This is a talented high school musician. Maybe super-talented? Sure. But I show up at Berklee and [future jazz piano star] Makoto Ozone is over here; you’ve got kids who were playing Beethoven piano concerti at age eight over there. You’ve got the real geniuses. And I’m like, ‘What do I do with my life now, now that I realize where I stand in the pantheon of real talent?’ But I just loved music so much that I thought, ‘Well, I could just work harder than anybody else. That’s what I’ll do. So I just pursued my love of music endlessly.’”

FINDING HIS VOICE
Early in his career, Mathes’s identity coalesced around music of faith: not contemporary Christian rock ditties, but piano-based song cycles that explored doubt as well as joy. One can especially imagine Mathes’s poignant ballad “William the Angel,” all eight minutes and nineteen seconds of it, gaining the status of Christmas classic: William the Angel sits on the side of the road. / The trooper says, “Be careful, haven’t you some place to go?” / William says, “No, I’ll just sit here and wait” / While pointing to the remains of his wing….

Mathes has recorded two albums that he deems the core expressions of his artistic self. The first was Evening Train, from 2002, drawing thematic inspiration from his grandfather Arthur Ballou, an engineer on the old New England steam trains. Evening Train is the record on which Mathes discovered his authentic sound—a burnished rock-blues-gospel with a killer horn section. The album won heavyweight admirers including Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, the songwriter Jimmy Webb, and, eight years after its release, Sting, from whom Mathes had humbly withheld the CD. When Sting finally received it from the bassist Will Lee, he good-naturedly scolded Mathes: “Rob, why didn’t you give me Evening Train?” Mathes said, “Sting, you’re busy enough. I’m not gonna start handing you my records.” It turned out Sting had stayed up late the night before, listening to Evening Train.

Wheelbarrow, its grittier, bluesier, yet equally polished sequel, did not appear until last December. (In 2013 Mathes released Flesh & Spirit, which contains some of his best work, as he acknowledges. “But Evening Train and Wheelbarrow are musically where I would live if I only had one more night of music to make.”) The decade-long gap between solo projects testifies not only to Mathes’s constant “watering of other people’s gardens,” as he puts it, but also to the plain difficulty of getting a record made.

Wheelbarrow had an unusual gestation. It grew out of his work with Trinity Church in Greenwich, founded in 1995 by Ian Cron. For the services, Cron encouraged Mathes to perform his own questing spirituals in addition to the God-themed Dylan and U2 songs he brought in. “I grew up with a woman who said ‘Praise God’ like 700 times a day,” Mathes says with what sounds like amused tolerance. “The hound of heaven has always been on my tail. It’s what birthed the Christmas concerts. It’s given me everything, my whole worldview: Despite everything you see on this planet, that sense of love persists.”

If Mathes once lamented never having become a Billy Joel, he does so no longer. Not much. “I have no illusions about being a big star myself,” he says. “I think my music is too dark, too inside. It’s singer-songwriter stuff.” Those who inhabit that zone, the Patty Griffins and the Shawn Colvins, travel constantly and sell few albums despite critical acclaim. Mathes’s close friend Jeb Brown, an actor from Greenwich, once told Mathes in a way that sobered him, “The great artists we worship sacrificed everything to their art. You wanted a family, and you adore them. You’re trying to have it all, Rob, but you can’t.” Rob and Tammy, married for twenty-five years, have three daughters—Emma, twenty, Sarah, eighteen, and Lily, fifteen. “Anyway, it’s a hip-hop world,” Mathes observes. “Beautifully so. Drake, Beyoncé, magnificent. They’re making great popular art, but it’s all on a grid. It’s coming out of a computer.”

Mathes now believes his own music nourishes the music he makes for others. He recalls trying to get the strings right for Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album as the Boss looked on. “That’s terrible, that’s my fault. That’s bad voicing. It’s cheesy,” he told the musicians. “Try this. It’s got to sound like you’re on the back of a flatbed truck, like you’re driving beside a stream on a dirt road. It can’t sound any more sophisticated than that. It’s purity, it’s America.” Those are not a technician’s words. Mathes says, “I think Bruce seeing me criticize my own work to find the truth of what he was writing could only happen because I made my own records.”

Sting started out riding the crest of British New Wave but has long since branched into everything from jazz to folk to classical, drawing inspiration from the Bible, novels, history, what-have-you. “I believe that pop music should be a great mongrel,” he has said. One sees, then, why the Sting-Mathes collaboration should be so fruitful. At Carnegie Hall, the musicians tackle “Roxanne,” the punk-reggae plea to a call girl that made the Police famous in 1978. But the Mathes-arranged “Roxanne” is nothing like that one; it’s a sultry ballad, revealing the song’s beautiful bossa nova bones.

Meanwhile, a red-haired woman of ample contour enters the darkened theater and takes a seat up front. She hums along quietly in a pure, obviously professional, lyric soprano. Since the theater is almost empty, she introduces herself to a seat-neighbor between songs. She is Shawna Hamic, currently on tour with Kinky Boots, but late of The Last Ship, in which she played the feisty barmaid Mrs. Dees. She has come in off the road especially to see tonight’s performance. Catching Sting’s eye, she tells him where she’ll be sitting, indicating somewhere aloft.

“I won’t see you,” he says.

“How could you miss me?” she says, laughing.

After “Fragile,” one of Sting’s most gorgeous songs, Sting nods, but he’s not quite satisfied. “Can you thin it out a little? It’s very thick.” Mathes listens to this cryptic directive, nods thoughtfully, and says, “Why don’t we do this: No lower strings at all in the beginning. Celli, you come in at letter A.”

Hamic slaps her armrest. “Did you see that?” she says. “How does he even know what Sting wants? I mean, to take a problem, comprehend it instantly, and come up with a perfect solution like that.” She shakes her head. “Pure genius.”

It’s rehearsal day, and the ever-punctual Sting waits onstage at Carnegie Hall for the maestro to appear.

Ah, there he is now, striding out of the wings, an amiable, generously proportioned fellow in blue jeans and a red pullover: Rob Mathes of Cos Cob, Connecticut.

Mathes gives Sting a hearty embrace and takes a moment to absorb, once again, the mythic surroundings. Thirty years ago he watched his idol Leonard Bernstein conduct Mahler’s Ninth here. In his mind’s eye, he sees twenty-one-year-old Rob up in the plush red dark of the second tier, gazing down at the hallowed stage where his present self now stands, bathed in light, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in front of him and Sting—Sting!—and his band beside him. If he thinks about it too long… Everybody’s done tuning up and coughing, and they’ve fixed their eyes upon the man at the conductor’s podium.

“We’re going to go in order,” Mathes announces, and strikes the air with his baton. A sinuous clarinet, a brisk plucking of strings, and then that arresting high tenor voice: “I don’t drink coffee, I take tea, my dear…” With liquid ease, Sting runs through “Englishman in New York,” his ode to remaining true to oneself no matter the social weathers. Sting will lead off tonight’s gala performance with this song—aptly, since he himself is a native of northeast England who keeps an apartment on Central Park West.

Mathes nods with satisfaction. “That’s the vibe,” he tells the orchestra, and then turns to Sting. “Good?”

Sting, now sixty-four, looks imperially fit in his white T-shirt, slim black vest and Romanov beard. “I’m happy,” he says, seeming to glow without changing expression.

Mathes, Sting and company launch into the Police megahit “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” Mathes is an emotive conductor in the Bernstein manner, coaxing the sound he wants with a series of rhythmic, crouching dance steps, sweeping arm movements, whole-body sways and soulful chin thrusts. “It’s better for me to err on the side of excess,” he’ll explain later, as if it were possible for him to conduct any other way. “I’m just not a reserved sort of guy.”

Mathes brings the players to a sudden halt.

“When he does that—” he tells the orchestra after Sting commences a verse a jot too soon.

“I won’t do that!” Sting says, grinning.

Next they play the Sting-written classics “Fields of Gold,” “King of Pain” and “Every Breath You Take,” as well as some lesser- known Sting beauties: “Mad About You,” “I Hung My Head,” “The Last Ship,” “Shape of My Heart,” and a Middle Eastern-tinged “Desert Rose,” which, a few hours hence, will have the packed house dancing in the aisles.

At lunch break, Mathes pulls on a gray topcoat and heads to a Starbucks across the street. It’s a not-cold day in mid-December, and the city, though burdened with clouds, shines with seasonal optimism. As Mathes crosses 56th Street, he seems suddenly exhausted and mentions that he’s been fighting off a cold. “But the music invigorates me,” he adds.

The fatigue owes partly to his punishing work schedule. He spent late November writing orchestrations for Bono and the Edge, embellishing timeless U2 anthems like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “One” for a concert to celebrate ten years of work by ONE and (RED), the nonprofits Bono founded to fight poverty and disease. And on December 1 at Carnegie Hall, before an audience including Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and Bill Gates, he conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a Congolese choir as Bono sang and the Edge played guitar, thinking all the while, “What the hell is going on? This can’t really be happening.”

The singer pitched into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” for which Mathes had written an Aaron Copland-like string arrangement. As Bono unfurled the lyric “I have climbed the highest mountain…” Rob could not help but reel at the memory of performing the same song back in the eighties at a smoky, beery Jimmy’s Seaside off Exit 9 in Stamford. As if in a dream of perfect wish fulfillment, Mathes then heard Bono giving him a grateful shout-out as the audience applauded. “I was flabbergasted,” Mathes says, “and am still.”

After that heady gig, Mathes prepared for today’s rehearsal and tonight’s concert. Just four days later would come the focal point and highlight of Mathes’s year: his annual pair of Christmas concerts at Purchase College, for which he is regionally famous. Amid all this, he’s releasing an album of his own work, Wheelbarrow, a set of bluesy rock songs, many of them spirituals, written and recorded over the last decade.

For the past six years, his professional attention has largely been devoted to Sting. “When I’m working with him, I’m incredibly careful, almost to a fault,” he says, even though the two have grown close. “I didn’t get a picture with him for a year and a half. It’s like, ‘I am your musical bodyguard. I’ve got your back. I’m only going to be a problem solver.’”

Sting took Mathes into his confidence on the advice of Christopher Roberts, the influential head of Universal Music Group’s Classics and Jazz divisions. It was supposed to be a limited engagement. Sting wanted to revamp some of his songs for an upcoming tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. “I still remember when I played him the intro I did for ‘Roxanne’ on the piano, and I saw Sting turn around to his manager, Kathy Schenker, and Kathy smiled,” Mathes says. “And I got the sense that he ‘clocks’ me—he gets that I get him.”

Mathes has worked with Sting ever since. “I call him my lion,” Sting has said. “He’s an extraordinary musician, a piano player, a guitar player, an arranger with an incredible knowledge of music and a deep understanding of my music.” For Sting’s 2010 album Symphonicities, a recasting of Police and Sting songs with an orchestra, Mathes arranged, conducted, played piano and guitar, sang backing vocals, and coproduced—a rare bounty of world-class gifts. And for Sting’s 2013 album and 2014 musical The Last Ship, Mathes did all those things plus cowrote four exquisite songs. On Broadway the musical, about the dying shipbuilding culture around Newcastle, proved a commercial disappointment. But in a sort of delayed reaction, The Last Ship is beginning to overspill its cultish circle of admirers. Sting earned a Tony nomination for the score and Mathes earned one for the orchestrations. Now there are whispers of a relaunching in London.

A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
Mathes long ago made his reputation as a musical renaissance man. It was the late Phil Ramone—producer of records for Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra—who set him on his way after hearing arrangements and songs he’d written (including the title track) for Vanessa Williams’s highly regarded 1996 Christmas album, Star Bright. Since then, Mathes has done orchestral arrangements for Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Lou Reed, Beck and Aretha Franklin; produced recordings for Rod Stewart and Carly Simon; composed songs recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville and Faith Hill; and written Emmy-nominated scores for the HBO documentaries Thurgood and Herblock: The Black and The White. Mathes’s specialty, though, is a kind of artistic heavy lifting for which almost nobody else is qualified: musically directing star-blazoned events from “We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial” (2009), to The Papal Concert at Madison Square Garden (2015), to the Kennedy Center Honors (2003–2014) for which he won an Emmy in 2012. (Though Mathes has made his own luck, he is lavish in his praise of benefactors like Michael Stevens, who produced the Kennedy Center Honors and directed Thurgood and Herblock. Stevens died of cancer last October at age forty-eight.)

Do these monumental shows make him nervous? “Right up until we start playing, I’m an anxious wreck. A complete anxious wreck! Once the music starts, it’s my reason for being.” Consider in particular Ann and Nancy Wilson’s now-legendary performance of “Stairway to Heaven” at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. As the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin look on with rising interest, Mathes can be seen at stage left in a shimmery black suit, joining Nancy Wilson on acoustic guitar. A string section eases in, then a small female choir, then horns, and finally a massive youth choir on risers at the rear of the stage. As the song builds toward its climax, Mathes—still strapped to his guitar—turns to conduct the choir until his outstretched arms signal the sustained heavenly note on which this “Stairway” ends.

Giving rock songs an orchestral makeover is always perilous. Usually it blunts and sweetens, robbing songs of the dimension it seeks to add. This arrangement, however, was pure Mathes: full-bodied to be sure, yet also lithe, clean and bold. But what did Zeppelin think? Witness the clever camera work (watchable on YouTube), cutting back and forth between the stage and Plant, Page and Jones, who can barely contain their delight. At one point, Jimmy Page lets fly a four-letter word (not “luck”); at another, both Plant and Page appear to shed tears. Mathes reports, “Robert Plant came up to me at the party afterward and said, ‘I like that song again. Thank you.’ That’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had.”

Then there is the matter of Rob Mathes’s solo career. One might say that he is agreeably cursed with a voracious musical appetite and backhandedly blessed with the ability to write and perform any genre with absurd fluency. As Chris Roberts said when recommending Mathes to Sting, “He sang Police songs in bars when he was a kid, but he also understands Mahler and Stravinsky.”

Listening to him talk now, one hears a stream of passionate appreciation for everyone from Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (“Nobody else had that foot! The way he played that bass drum was uncanny”) to Radiohead (“‘In Rainbows’ showed me what possibilities still exist in the rock medium; it’s a masterpiece”) to Stravinsky and Shakespeare and the mystery of genius (“You can read the score of ‘The Rite of Spring,’ but you can’t get near it. You can memorize King Lear, but you can’t touch it. You can’t. They’re magic.”) His love of art often flows outside of music and into theater and novels and poetry. He would gladly talk about the late poet Philip Levine (“my secular scripture”) deep into the night.

The rub is this: Mathes himself had set out to be a popular music star. No doubt he had the chops, the ambition, and the artistic intelligence. The problem—if it can be called a problem—was that his multifaceted talent clouded the issue of his artistic identity. Rock? Jazz? Blues? Orchestral songs? He wrote and performed all of the above. That made him hard to get a handle on in a field that loves handles. Last November Rob’s wife, Tammy, gave voice to Rob’s curious dilemma on Facebook: “When we first married, I used to tell Rob that he shouldn’t be such a butterfly; he was interested in every genre, instrument, composer, decade and century, etc. I thought it best to focus on one aspect for his career.” But, she added, “he clearly didn’t take my young advice and I have to admit, his obsessions have served him well.”

Whether Rob is equally reconciled to his capricious muse is not immediately clear, but his countenance grows a little dark as he considers the question. “I think the best spin I can put on it—while still allowing you into the troubled psyche I have about it—is that we are who we are,” he says. And who is that? The answer must begin with what Rob calls “The Quartet”—his parents, Joan and George Mathes, and his aunt and uncle, Joyce and Arthur “Skip” Kelley. The two families were bound together by many ties—their Christian faith, their Old Greenwich addresses, George and Skip’s teaching careers in town, and above all by their abiding love of music. Joan is a classical pianist; George is a virtuoso clarinetist and a retired band teacher; Joyce (Joan’s twin sister) is a bassoonist; and Skip, who died in 2009, played lead trombone for Sammy Kaye’s band before settling into his math-teaching career.

The families formed a kind of musical hothouse, and in it, Rob was the rare bloom. “Uncle Skip loved Sinatra, loved Ellington. He was always saying, ‘You need a jazz guitar teacher, you’ve got to learn about jazz.’ My mom was on me all the time to practice Bach. I had to learn the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Major, the Chopin Revolutionary étude, the Chopin ‘Ocean’ etude… . And my dad was a classical clarinetist who played with the Greenwich Symphony, but he said he was a secret hillbilly. He loved Dylan, he loved Peter, Paul and Mary. All these strands of music! And that’s what you know. So, you are who you are.

“Now, within that cloistered environment, my folks told me I was a genius,” Mathes continues. “I honestly think I’m a very, very good musician, but genius is a terrible word and should only be used in regard to Bernstein, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, Wagner… . But it ended up being fuel once I realized how the world worked.”

That dizzying moment came in the fall of 1981, when Mathes arrived at the celebrated Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I show up with a good amount of technique on the guitar, a decent piano player, and, having written a ton of songs in high school [at Greenwich High], a clear tenor voice with good pitch. This is a talented high school musician. Maybe super-talented? Sure. But I show up at Berklee and [future jazz piano star] Makoto Ozone is over here; you’ve got kids who were playing Beethoven piano concerti at age eight over there. You’ve got the real geniuses. And I’m like, ‘What do I do with my life now, now that I realize where I stand in the pantheon of real talent?’ But I just loved music so much that I thought, ‘Well, I could just work harder than anybody else. That’s what I’ll do. So I just pursued my love of music endlessly.’”

FINDING HIS VOICE
Early in his career, Mathes’s identity coalesced around music of faith: not contemporary Christian rock ditties, but piano-based song cycles that explored doubt as well as joy. One can especially imagine Mathes’s poignant ballad “William the Angel,” all eight minutes and nineteen seconds of it, gaining the status of Christmas classic: William the Angel sits on the side of the road. / The trooper says, “Be careful, haven’t you some place to go?” / William says, “No, I’ll just sit here and wait” / While pointing to the remains of his wing….

Mathes has recorded two albums that he deems the core expressions of his artistic self. The first was Evening Train, from 2002, drawing thematic inspiration from his grandfather Arthur Ballou, an engineer on the old New England steam trains. Evening Train is the record on which Mathes discovered his authentic sound—a burnished rock-blues-gospel with a killer horn section. The album won heavyweight admirers including Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, the songwriter Jimmy Webb, and, eight years after its release, Sting, from whom Mathes had humbly withheld the CD. When Sting finally received it from the bassist Will Lee, he good-naturedly scolded Mathes: “Rob, why didn’t you give me Evening Train?” Mathes said, “Sting, you’re busy enough. I’m not gonna start handing you my records.” It turned out Sting had stayed up late the night before, listening to Evening Train.

Wheelbarrow, its grittier, bluesier, yet equally polished sequel, did not appear until last December. (In 2013 Mathes released Flesh & Spirit, which contains some of his best work, as he acknowledges. “But Evening Train and Wheelbarrow are musically where I would live if I only had one more night of music to make.”) The decade-long gap between solo projects testifies not only to Mathes’s constant “watering of other people’s gardens,” as he puts it, but also to the plain difficulty of getting a record made.

Wheelbarrow had an unusual gestation. It grew out of his work with Trinity Church in Greenwich, founded in 1995 by Ian Cron. For the services, Cron encouraged Mathes to perform his own questing spirituals in addition to the God-themed Dylan and U2 songs he brought in. “I grew up with a woman who said ‘Praise God’ like 700 times a day,” Mathes says with what sounds like amused tolerance. “The hound of heaven has always been on my tail. It’s what birthed the Christmas concerts. It’s given me everything, my whole worldview: Despite everything you see on this planet, that sense of love persists.”

If Mathes once lamented never having become a Billy Joel, he does so no longer. Not much. “I have no illusions about being a big star myself,” he says. “I think my music is too dark, too inside. It’s singer-songwriter stuff.” Those who inhabit that zone, the Patty Griffins and the Shawn Colvins, travel constantly and sell few albums despite critical acclaim. Mathes’s close friend Jeb Brown, an actor from Greenwich, once told Mathes in a way that sobered him, “The great artists we worship sacrificed everything to their art. You wanted a family, and you adore them. You’re trying to have it all, Rob, but you can’t.” Rob and Tammy, married for twenty-five years, have three daughters—Emma, twenty, Sarah, eighteen, and Lily, fifteen. “Anyway, it’s a hip-hop world,” Mathes observes. “Beautifully so. Drake, Beyoncé, magnificent. They’re making great popular art, but it’s all on a grid. It’s coming out of a computer.”

Mathes now believes his own music nourishes the music he makes for others. He recalls trying to get the strings right for Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album as the Boss looked on. “That’s terrible, that’s my fault. That’s bad voicing. It’s cheesy,” he told the musicians. “Try this. It’s got to sound like you’re on the back of a flatbed truck, like you’re driving beside a stream on a dirt road. It can’t sound any more sophisticated than that. It’s purity, it’s America.” Those are not a technician’s words. Mathes says, “I think Bruce seeing me criticize my own work to find the truth of what he was writing could only happen because I made my own records.”

Sting started out riding the crest of British New Wave but has long since branched into everything from jazz to folk to classical, drawing inspiration from the Bible, novels, history, what-have-you. “I believe that pop music should be a great mongrel,” he has said. One sees, then, why the Sting-Mathes collaboration should be so fruitful. At Carnegie Hall, the musicians tackle “Roxanne,” the punk-reggae plea to a call girl that made the Police famous in 1978. But the Mathes-arranged “Roxanne” is nothing like that one; it’s a sultry ballad, revealing the song’s beautiful bossa nova bones.

Meanwhile, a red-haired woman of ample contour enters the darkened theater and takes a seat up front. She hums along quietly in a pure, obviously professional, lyric soprano. Since the theater is almost empty, she introduces herself to a seat-neighbor between songs. She is Shawna Hamic, currently on tour with Kinky Boots, but late of The Last Ship, in which she played the feisty barmaid Mrs. Dees. She has come in off the road especially to see tonight’s performance. Catching Sting’s eye, she tells him where she’ll be sitting, indicating somewhere aloft.

“I won’t see you,” he says.

“How could you miss me?” she says, laughing.

After “Fragile,” one of Sting’s most gorgeous songs, Sting nods, but he’s not quite satisfied. “Can you thin it out a little? It’s very thick.” Mathes listens to this cryptic directive, nods thoughtfully, and says, “Why don’t we do this: No lower strings at all in the beginning. Celli, you come in at letter A.”

Hamic slaps her armrest. “Did you see that?” she says. “How does he even know what Sting wants? I mean, to take a problem, comprehend it instantly, and come up with a perfect solution like that.” She shakes her head. “Pure genius.”

 

 

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