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    Berklee grad Matt Nakoa wows crowds with Tom Rush

    Neale Eckstein

    Age: 32

    Hometown: Smyrna, N.Y. “It’s a very tiny town of mostly farmland. Growing up, Boston was a mythical land for me — my dad grew up in Dorchester and went to Boston English, so I grew up hearing about Boston. When I finally went to Berklee, I fell in love with Boston,” said the 2006 Berklee College of Music grad. “But now I basically live in my van, on the road, touring around.”

    Think of: On the ivories, a hot-handed phenom who can go from Chopin to beer-drenched honky-tonk in one set. On guitar, a Jack Johnson-esque singer-songwriter.

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    What caught our eye: Nakoa is currently on tour with Boston folk legend Tom Rush as his accompanying pianist — but he’s not just on the bench. Rush is giving him plenty of solo game time and Nakoa does not disappoint. Actually, between his piano chops, charismatic stage presence, and heartfelt originals on guitar songs, he drops jaws.

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    Lightbulb moments: “I’ve had many. When I was 8 or 9 and fell in love with music at Christmastime — I heard people caroling, and it was just so magic to me,” he said. “In ninth grade, I realized, When I play piano, people notice, and maybe that girl will notice and go to the dance with me. . . . Later, I realized it’s not about my ego, or about how I feel — I have the responsibility to share the music coming through me. I might get off stage and think, That couldn’t have gone any worse, and then someone walks up and says: ‘That was amazing.’ It means something to them; it’s not about me.”

    Biggest thrills: Playing Symphony Hall with Tom Rush last December. “That was an incredible gig. It was a place to drop the marker and say, Wow. I can’t believe I’m living in this moment. Also, playing my own set at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas [in June]. I opened up for David Crosby, which was cool,” he said. Another thrill-lightbulb moment came when he won the songwriting competition at the same fest two years ago: “I stepped out on stage and thought, All these people want me to do well. I can play my own songs. It’s possible. I don’t have to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ anymore.”

    Biggest surprise: “That I ended up playing folk music with Tom Rush,” Nakoa said with a laugh. “I was in Sudbury, crashing on a friend’s couch, and my friend has a recording studio in his basement. Tom came over to do demos of new songs — my friend shook me awake and said, ‘I know you’re tired, but you gotta wake up and get down here; this guy’s kind of a legend.’ I don’t think we said more than three sentences the whole session, but at the end, he said, ‘What are you doing next week? Because I’m playing at Boston Symphony Hall, and you should come with me.’

    Inspired by: Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, Led Zeppelin.

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    Aspires to: “Make music people can dance to. I’ve got this whole palette of musical colors I want to lay on the world.”

    For good luck: “Performing is not so much luck as it is psychology. So I’ll picture the show, my hands on the guitar and keyboard, me being funny, and everything working the way I want it to go in a dream scenario. And then I think about Christmastime when I was 8 or 9, singing those carols.”

    What people should know: “It’s hard to describe my ‘genre.’ People should dip their toe in and see if they like it.”

    Coming soon: Feb. 26 at 8 p.m with Tom Rush at the Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton.

    Link: www.mattnakoa.com

    Lauren Daley

    Interview was condensed and edited. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com.