Dave Matthews Band found a way to shake things up live in concert yet again on Friday night, this time by playing things a bit more conventional than usual. The band has long been known for live shows which defy convention, shunning most of their biggest hits on any given night in favor of jamming out on extended versions of various deep album cuts, with no two setlists much resembling each other from one night to the next. And that unusual approach became even more unique when the band announced that it would serve as its own opening act for its summer tour, playing an hour of acoustic songs before returning for its main plugged-in set. And when DMB first took the stage, there was no clear indication of how the night might go.
The opening set was as stripped down as a seven-instrument band can be, complete with Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds on acoustic guitar and Stefan Lessard switching off between acoustic bass and upright bass. The first song was out of left field, a cut from Matthews’ lone solo album of a decade ago, and an oddity for the full band to be opening with. But it was well suited to the format, and predictably dissolved into a slow-burn jam session. Then came the bigger surprise: the second tune of the evening opened with the familiar snare hit of Ants Marching, one of the band’s earliest hit songs. There were other unconventional choices for the set, including a nicely polished cover of Paul Simon’s Slip Sliding Away. But before the hour was up the band had performed its two biggest radio hits, What Would You Say and Crash Into Me. Suddenly the band known for not bothering to play its hit songs with regularity was now playing them in rapid succession, but doing so in an acoustic format which made them feel fresh.
Perhaps feeling that the opening hit parade was enough to scratch that particular itch, the main electric set saw Dave Matthews Band wander deeper into its own library. From ballads like The Stone, to up tempo numbers like Belly Belly Nice, to jam sessions disguised as songs like #41, to peculiar tunes like Raven and Gaucho, the setlist managed to touch on nearly every studio album the band has released. But rather than feeling like a nostalgia tour, some of the songs served to show off the evolution which the band’s live act has undergone over the years. Tim Reynolds (who has been performing with the band on and off for more than two decades but still doesn’t appear to be an official member) handled the bulk of the soloing on his electric guitar on #41, whereas in past years that might have been handled on keyboard by the departed Butch Taylor, or on flute and saxophone by the late LeRoi Moore. Six years after his death, the band has recovered admirably from the loss of one of its founding members, partly because they lucked into getting Jeff Coffin from the Flecktones, and partly due to the sheer musicianship of the surviving members.
For all the improvising, jamming, and outright musical wandering that Dave Matthews Band ventures into during its concerts, nothing about Friday night’s show felt disorganized or out of place. Those who were seeing Dave Matthews Band for the first time may have been shocked to hear cover songs like the 1959 ballad Long Black Veil or Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, but devoted fans are aware that those are two of the band’s favorite live cover tunes. The band has always seemed comfortable performing the former, but on this evening managed to confidently nail the latter after a few years of trying. The appearance of the “Lovely Ladies” – three backing vocalists who used to tour with the band regularly a decade ago – late in the set was perhaps the most surprising moment of the evening. But even that wasn’t about venturing into new territory as it was about taking something older from the band’s history and making it new again in a new way.
When it was all said and done Friday night, Dave Matthews Band had performed three hours of live music, played more of its hit songs than usual, and walked fans through a highlight reel of what it’s always done best live. When a band hasn’t released a new record in a few years and isn’t yet working on its next one, and there is therefore nothing specific to promote, live shows are always a wildcard. For a band that never seems to be willing to do anything in a normal way to begin with, they’ve managed to shake things up by being more conventional than their audiences are accustomed to.