Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dave Matthews Band concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register and can be viewed here:

Photo by Christine Cotter, for the Orange County Register

Dave Matthews Band, Brett Dennen
Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Irvine, CA
When: Aug. 21

Despite a tough concert season, with frequent cancellations and ticket sales down over 10 percent from last summer (according to music industry trade Pollstar), the Dave Matthews Band is recession-proof and continues to pack ‘em in.

No surprise there.

A strong annual draw, it has moved more ducats than Springsteen, U2 and the Stones dating to 2000 (relatively modest prices definitely help). While walking through Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Saturday, other artists’ struggles were evident. A couple dozen venue employees repeatedly shilled low dough lawn seats for John Mayer
and Zac Brown Band.

Watching a Dave Matthews Band gig when the weather’s warm is such a ritual among diehard fans that the group announced would be taking time off in 2011. Much like Phishheads and Deadheads, DMB enthusiasts are an extremely devoted lot, often following the tour around the country, recording and trading concert recordings.

DMB set lists change considerably and repetition is rare. Such was the case at the sold out Irvine performance, clocking in at just under 2 ½ hours. Only four of the 20 tunes were played the night before in Chula Vista. The riveting Orange County show was heavy on obscurities and deep album cuts, which delighted the faithful.

As is common during most DMB shows, this one was being taped by the band. Large microphone poles in various seating sections puzzled quite a few drunk, stoned and uninitiated people. Some asked if this writer was taking notes in conjunction with the device nearby; others stared or used it to balance themselves down the steps. Surprisingly, the thing didn’t collapse.

“Minarets,” from 1993 indie debut “Remember Two Things,” opened the proceedings on a haunting note. Boyd Tinsley’s scraped violin sounds, paired with Tim Reynolds’ moody electric guitar lines, Dave Matthews’ anguished howls and fierce acoustic guitar strums, resulted in a chillingly dynamic introduction.

Moving in a totally different direction was “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” the first of five songs taken off platinum-selling album “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” which debuted at No. 1 last year. The tune’s bright, punchy horn blasts were served up by sax man Jeff Coffin and trumpeter Rashawn Ross (the pair’s Dixieland-styled phrasings on a poppy “Grey Street” was among the evening's numerous highlights).

Coffin, also of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, has toured with the band a couple years and is a fine replacement for the late LeRoi Moore. Ross (sporting an old school California Angels cap) shined amid a soft solo on “Proudest Monkey,” while Reynolds did great slide work and Matthews’ voice gradually got louder as he made animal sounds. The singer has a fascination with primates and regularly incorporates them into lyrics.

Tinsley’s keening violin anchored the soaring, sway-worthy “Satellite,” where Matthews and always happy drummer Carter Beauford teamed up for some supple harmonies. Bassist (and Anaheim native) Stefan Lessard started the vibrant, politically tinged “Funny the Way it Is” with a new spacey effect.

Everyone locked into an extended instrumental groove during the jazzy “Lying in the Hands of God” (later, they’d get a similar vibe on “You Might Die Trying”). Matthews dismissively sang “save your sermons for someone that’s afraid to love” on “Lying” and did a primal howl.

“Don’t Drink the Water” found the front man, eyes tightly shut and drenched in sweat, going through a musical exorcism of sorts. It was dramatic and powerful as ever. Fans cheered wildly in recognition at popular older tunes’ opening notes and loudly sang along (the joyous “Dancing Nancies,” containing another frenzied Tinsley solo spotlight; the always exhilarating stomp, “Ants Marching”).

The encore segment included Matthews on solo acoustic guitar, emphasizing his raspy vocal timbre amid “Rye Whiskey,” a simple, traditional folk song recorded by Tex Ritter, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Twenty years on, Dave Matthews Band continues to be one of the tightest, intuitive and unique alt-rock bands in America.

Central California singer/guitarist Brett Dennen and his four-piece group warmed up the still arriving audience with an amiable 45-minute set. The smooth, laid back tunes (“San Francisco”) relied on tropical sounds (the Paul Simon-esque “Darlin, Do Not Fear”), in addition to some reggae and jazz/pop (“Make You Crazy”). But the red-haired, barefoot performer’s creamy vocals and scatting (think jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday) were definitely an acquired taste.

Dave Matthews Band, Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Aug. 21, 2010

Main set:
Minarets/Shake Me Like a Monkey/Proudest Monkey/Satellite/Funny the
Way It Is/Lying in the Hands of God/Write a Song/You Might Die Trying/Still
Water/Don’t Drink the Water/Sister/Dancing Nancies/Alligator Pie/Can’t Stop/Grey
Street/Black Jack/You & Me/Ants Marching
Encores: Rye Whiskey/Jimi Thing

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