Dave Matthews Band

Dave Matthews Band
Chicago, IL

Dave Matthews took advantage of “the world’s largest outdoor bar” setting Friday at the first of two sold-out shows at Wrigley Field, playing matchmaker as he drew on spirit-boosting songs that addressed themes of fawning devotion, spellbound infatuation and romantic pleasure.

Moving away from the extended jamming of the past, the gregarious 43-year-old singer/guitarist primarily focused on organized arrangements that better served the music’s rhythmic pursuits and twitching grooves. Joined onstage by longtime collaborator/guitarist Tim Reynolds, the Dave Matthews Band appeared motivated by an urgency that occasionally clashed with the unhurried vibes of its mellower material. An edgy version of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” and the fluid punch of Reynolds’ electric guitar expressed the group’s intent: More taut rock and funk, less watered-down fusion. The collective can well afford to change things up.

A concert juggernaut, Dave Matthews Band sold 11.6 million tickets and grossed $529.1 million in North America from 2000-2009, numbers that gave it bragging rights as the top touring act of the decade. The South African native’s group earned the recognition. Akin to a modern-day Grateful Dead, the ensemble has hit the road for 20 consecutive years. But the streak is about to end. In May, Matthews announced the band will take 2011 off—its first-ever break. The revelation apparently sparked the leader’s energy.

“Last night I stumbled around the streets of Chicago. If I saw you, I might not remember,” Matthews half-jokingly confessed midway through the 145-minute set. The admission resonated with the crowd, which included a fair amount of frat-like dudes that high-fived one another at the start of nearly every song. And while certain atmospheric elements resembled the bleacher scenes at a Cubs game—people’s conversations drowned out whisper-soft acoustic fare such as “Sister”; some fans seemed oblivious to the on-field action—the bond between artist and audience frequently emerged.

Participatory sing-a-longs buoyed the gypsy-flavored “Dancing Nancies” and sticky-foot shuffle “Don’t Drink the Water.” Matthews’ lilting vocals and rubbery falsetto functioned as ideal delivery vehicles for channeling sweet nothings—”We can do anything baby”; “I think the world of you”; “You make me feel high”; “Head over heels for you”– any smitten girl or boy would long to hear. Violinist Boyd Tinsley supplied country-tinged solos that swirled together with folk melodies, the styles coalescing in the form of jigs, waltzes and marches. Drummer Carter Beauford held everything together, even injecting lithe beats into a few milquetoast sequences that shared more in common with background coffeehouse fare than jazz.

Matthews was at his best when combining faintly strummed notes with swelling hooks to produce brief sensations of vertigo. “Rapunzel” hopped to stop-start tempos and “Crush” threatened to float into the ether. The slow-build dynamic peaked on a biting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Overlaying segments of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” onto the oft-covered standard, the band created a live mash-up that would’ve made electronic wizard Girl Talk proud.

Bob Grendron

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