By Whitney Pastorek
October 31, 2008 at 09:37 PM EDT

While there’s all kinds of ways to discover new artists in our fancy robot world (MySpace, YouTube, janking your buddy’s iPod), I still maintain that nothing beats the good ol’ cover song when it comes time to wander through the music woods: Shawn Colvin’s take on “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” sending me to the store for my first Tom Waits album, for example, or how I burrowed into the Victoria Williams catalog after hearing Pearl Jam do “Crazy Mary.” I like these experiences because they build a nice little grid in my mind, keep my gaze turned outward instead of just listening to the same crap all day…

… which is why Wednesday night found me at the House of Blues to see Matt Nathanson, a singer-songwriter I was made aware of this summer when Sugarland’s cover of “Come On Get Higher” convinced me to buy his sixth album, Some Mad Hope. That record sits pretty squarely in AAA/Adult Contemporary/Prime-Time TV Soundtrack turf, but in person, songs like “Car Crash” and “Wedding Dress” took on a crackling, broad-chested urgency, the thick ‘n’ meaty drum work of Konrad Meissner pushing everything just a little bit harder and making me stand on my toes to watch. Turned out Matt’s no cover slouch, either, so we got a straight-up take on James’ “Laid” (which he recorded for American Wedding), a snippet of “In a Big Country” as a walk-up to “Falling Apart,” and a detour into “Kids in America” amidst “Detroit Waves.” We also participated in a singalong battle of A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” and Nathanson copped to the slightly “Jesse’s Girl”-inflected bassline of “Princess” before playing most of the Rick Springfield song, too. “Yeah, it’s f—ing ‘Jesse’s Girl.’ I stole it,” he explained. “But I’m not successful enough to incur the wrath of Rick Springfield’s lawyers.” (Such droll banter carried the night; Nathanson is nestled neatly somewhere between John Mayer and Dave Grohl on the spectrum of Self-Aware Humor as It Relates to Rawkingness of Sound.)

More after the jump, plus video of both the Sugarland and Nathanson versions of “Come On Get Higher” for your comparing/contrasting pleasure.

“This is the weird part of the show where we pretend this is the last song we’re gonna play and then we walk off stage, and you’re like, ‘F—, don’t go, don’t go!’ and then we come back out and play the two songs already on our set list,” Nathanson said before “finishing” the set with “All We Are,” slightly shocked joy spreading across his face as he realized the sardine-packed house was belting along. The aforementioned encore songs turned out to be “Come On Get Higher”–lyrics like “I taste the sparks on your tongue” suddenly waaaaaay sexier than when Nettles sings ’em for the country-time family crowd–and “Answering Machine.” Then he thanked us all for showing up (“I never thought I’d play a room this big in L.A.”) and waved bye-bye.

“If I found a frat I’d want to be in, I’d hire him for my party,” said one of my companions. I came home and immediately ordered three more Matt Nathanson albums off Amazon.

So hey, PopWatchers, what about you? Use the comment space to share cover songs that opened your musical horizons! That way we can all learn and grow together!