NEW YORK — Don't judge a band by its covers? It's hard not to in a situation like Wednesday night's Dave Matthews concert at Madison Square Garden, where nearly a third of the three-hour set drew on other people's songs.
But the point wasn't so much that Dave Matthews and Friends — as it was billed — performed an excessive amount of cover songs. The point was why.
Dave Matthews Band concertgoers expect marathon sets, exploratory jams, a few special guests. And they got all that, despite the fact that this concert was supposed to be a showcase for the ultimate everyman's solo music, which is decidedly darker and more song-structured than his DMB material. This performance, however, was a bridge between those two worlds, and the covers sprinkled among his solo songs made that connection.
It would be one thing if Matthews chose not to play any DMB songs in order to focus on tracks from Some Devil. Then he might have needed covers to beef up the show, because even played in its entirety — as it almost was — his solo material wouldn't fill out a concert. But Matthews opened with a seven-song set of DMB songs, accompanied only by longtime collaborator Tim Reynolds. Sitting on chairs and frantically picking acoustic guitars, they tried to redefine the party-band songs, most of which dated back to 1994's Under the Table and Dreaming.
After musing that the rest of his crew — which was to include Phish's Trey Anastasio as well as drummer Brady Blade and bassist Tony Hall from opener Emmylou Harris' band — had stepped out for a drink or must be stuck in a traffic "jam," Matthews growled that the guy who caused the jam must have had too much to drink or smoke. The audience cheered at this suggestion as many in the crowd began lighting up themselves. Then Matthews and Reynolds launched into the final number of the DMB set, a transformed and newly meditative "Dancing Nancies."
From there on out, they were joined by Matthews' supposedly late-arriving pickup pals — Anastasio, Hall, Blade and keyboard player Ray Paczkowski, all of them setting out to transform the solo material into something a little more aggressive than introspective, with three electric guitars taking the place of the album's strings and gospel choirs.
Starting with the deceptively light and fluid "Dodo," they kept switching the mood, never allowing the sorrowful ruminations to fully take shape or take over, lest they undermine the fun and the freewheeling spirit. While Dave Matthews Band concerts do this as well — moving from breezy to apocalyptic and back again — they usually do so within the same song. This switch was a matter of organization, a sort of playful pacing from song to song, in defiance of momentum or mood, as if no darkness could be sustained for too long.
The gritty and commanding "Gravedigger" was bookended by buoyant takes on Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" and the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek." Similarly, the pleading "Grey Blue Eyes" was wedged between a thundering version of the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog" and Little Feat's "Spanish Moon."
The show could've been a jam-band summit, and some jams did sneak in, like the reggae-tinged "Up and Away," but for the most part Matthews departed from the DMB formula and showed that he's capable of moving beyond what his fans expect.
This also could've been a new and improved version of the Dave Matthews Band, but the members came and went, as did vocalists, as each song dictated. Emmylou Harris joined Matthews for a duet on Bob Dylan's "Oh Sister," her elegant voice outshining Matthews' even though she needed a lyric sheet to get through the song.
Anastasio was happy to play sideman and to contribute an occasional lead vocal ("Up on Cripple Creek"), a little lead guitar ("Spanish Moon") and an homage to his own band in the encore (a turn on "Bathtub Gin," in which he and Matthews traded verses).
But the most touching moment of the night belonged to Matthews alone: a spare, plaintive rendition of Some Devil's title track, accompanied only by his own guitar. Here he didn't worry about punching up arrangements or kicking out the jams — and he stole the show.
- "Lie in Our Graves"
- "Typical Situation"
- "Where Are You Going"
- "Dancing Nancies"
- "Up and Away"
- "Solsbury Hill"
- "Up on Cripple Creek"
- "American Tune"
- "Stay or Leave"
- "Oh, Sister"
- "Some Devil"
- "So Damn Lucky"
- "Hey Bulldog"
- "Grey Blue Eyes"
- "Spanish Moon"
- "Save Me"
- "Sweet Up and Down"
- "Bathtub Gin"
- "Fool in the Rain"
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.