It’s a typical situation: A rock band takes the stage and simply runs through a predictable list of its biggest singles. Such concerts can turn a $50 ticket into a virtual greatest-hits album populated by live musicians.
Too bad Tuesday night’s show at Madison Square Garden wasn’t billed as “The Very Best of Dave Matthews.” While I own five recordings by the South African-born, Virginia-based guitar-strumming vocalist, I found myself struggling to identify most of what I heard. The brightly rendered “Jimi Thing” and “Two Step” were familiar, but the preponderance of new songs left me scratching my head.
As I review concerts, I usually scrawl song titles in the dark (made easier this night by Fenton Williams’s lovely lighting design, accented with notes of tangerine, cobalt and snow), then scribble observations about intriguing things on stage and off. Throughout my notes for this show, the words “mystery tune” appear over and over again.
Of the 19 songs Matthews and his five sidemen played during their two-hour, 35-minute set, five were from his latest album “Everyday,” while four appear on the cleverly titled recording, “Busted Stuff.” It doesn’t hit stores until July 16.
The youthful, well-groomed, and snappily-dressed crowd drifted a bit as the unknown compositions poured through the crisply mixed sound system. (The most casual patrons wore T-shirts labeled “Abercrombie & Fitch,” as if those inside them needed to be so identified.) Several guests near me, when they were not yapping on their cell phones, had trouble telling me the titles we heard.
That said, the DMBeatniks spent much of the evening screaming like Beatles fans swooning over the easygoing and humble Matthews, the versatile Leroi Moore (who mainly played saxophone and shined on the penny whistle on “Bartender”) and atypical violinist Boyd Tinsley. He throws his entire body into his fiddle work. With his long, bouncing hair, and oversized, round, reflective sunglasses, Tinsley resembles a fly with dreadlocks.
The Dave Matthews Band is the most commercially successful of the so-called jam bands that drew inspiration from and eventually adopted Grateful Dead’s audience in the early to mid-1990s. Blues Traveler, Phish, Widespread Panic, and, more recently, String Cheese Incident have entertained this populace of enthusiastic, informed and discriminating aficionados who gladly will drop everything to see their heroes play. Unlike most of these other “baby Dead” bands, as I call them, DMB usually jams lightly. The volcanic build-up and eruption that these other acts effortlessly engineer song after song seemed just beyond DMB’s grasp.
(Robert Randolph and the Family Band have the jam thing down cold, however. On “Voodoo Chile” and a handful of songs they performed in their brief opening act, the Newark-based Randolph made his pedal-steel guitar scream with glee as his Hammond B-3 organist and blues-flavored bassist started with solid, steady rhythms and quickly generated energetic states of frenzy.)
DMB’s professionalism and unpretentiousness are admirable, as is the graciousness of Matthews himself who appears touched rather than jaded by his audience’s affection for him. He thanked us time and again, as if he were a mere newcomer rather than one of America’s biggest headliners. Still, I found myself Tuesday night wishing for a less cryptic set list and some music that gave me goose bumps.