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Published: 2003/09/30
by Mike Greenhaus

Dave Matthews Band, Central Park, NYC- 9/24

Dave Matthews rose from sweaty clubs to crowded stadiums as pop-rock's perennial everyman. So it's fitting that his one-hundred thousand person strong Central Park celebration was part media-blitz, part humble homecoming.

Matthews has always firmly planted one foot on either side of 14th St. and his Central Park performance showcased this balancing act: a free-event hosted by media-conglomerate America On-line, a school-benefit arriving the day after Matthews' solo release hit stores.

Falling somewhere between a charity concert and college-frat kegger, Dave Matthews Bands' Central Park performance will be remembered as a generational landmark. Music aside, it will be to Generation Y what Simon and Garfunkel's Great Lawn summit was to baby boomer's: a celebration of New York and ageless youth culture. With teenagers scattered between recent college grads and thirty-somethings sporting happy hour attire, Wednesday's crowd included all facets of Matthews audience: hippies, yuppies, teen-boppers, and celebrities. With a world-wide audience watching via the web, Matthews could have stacked his set-list with hits and used rock and roll royalty as ringers, but the guitarist instead opted to play his usual mix of brooding ballads and danceable pop ditties.

Disheveled and sporting a fresh 5 o'clock shadow, Matthews was not the first entertainer to grace the Great Lawn's stage Wednesday night. After a gospel inspired version of the "Star Spangled Banner" by a New York City high school chorus, businessmen turned politician mayor Mike Bloomberg awkwardly introduced Dave Matthews Band:

"You're about to see one of the great bands," Bloomberg muttered. "Get ready for a fantastic night of music."

His greeting was also met with a sea of boos upon the mention of corporate sponsor AOL-Time Warner.

Standing in stark contrast to the suit-clad mayor, Matthews stood calm and contemplative, aware that this concert would act as a capstone to his career and would soon be released as a "specially priced" DVD and CD set.

Violinist Boyd Tinsley dressed as a 5th avenue co-opted cowboy, wearing a black vest and brim-hat, adding his high-picked voice to each song's chorus. The rest of the band remained silently smiling throughout the night; genuinely pleased to be using their celebrity status for charity. Throughout the evening, the group reflected their energy and excitement through their playing. Having lived for several years in the Westchester County suburb of Yorktown and having once been a regular fixture at the Wetlands, Matthews also boasted his quasi Big Apple background early on.

"New York is the greatest city in the world," Matthews sang. "I'm glad I ran into you in the park."

Set against the city's industrial mid-town skyscrapers and the still waters of Turtle Pond, the concert's scenario was equally tranquil and chaotic, much like Matthews' music itself.

Opening with a particularly dark version of "Don't Drink the Water," Matthews and company set a surprisingly sober tone for their three-hour jam session. With bassist Stefan Lessard showing remarkable growth on his instrument, the band found their funk-rock core early on, as drummer extraordinaire Carter Beauford hosted an eclectic party of his own on his cymbals. With a two-front attack firmly in place, the band quickly launched a medley of "Say To Much" and "Too Much," with Matthews scatting on a slim jam that bridged the two Crash classics. Like a normal Dave Matthews Band performance, the quintet focused the first portion of their set on composed songs and then dug a bit deeper into improvisation and extended solos, as if they were performing a two-set show.

Always one of rock's more personable ensembles, Dave Matthews Band invited New York resident Warren Haynes onto the stage two-thirds through the evening, creating some of the show's most memorable and revealing moments. Having collaborated with the group in front of a scarce 100-person audience at the Wetlands, Haynes is a relic from Matthews' jam-oriented past. His appearance signified the group's club childhood, an OZ-like moment that revealed the men behind the group's celebrity curtain. Seemingly small beneath a huge-light rig and jumbo television monitors, Dave Matthews Band played a club set to a festival size crowd.

Trading off lead vocals with Matthews on an engaging cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," Haynes' electric guitar co-opted the group's extended, bluesy groove. His appearance also proved to audiences that DMB's greatest flaw is the absence of a lead guitarist. As Haynes and Tinsley exchanged solos and led a crisp trip down memory lane, thousands of fans were reminded that beneath their studio glass, Dave Matthews is a jam-band at heart. Throughout the night, the band's song selection reflected the group's mid-nineties musical peak. Instead of including Matthews new solo single "Gravedigger," or the Glen Ballard produced "The Space Between" and "I Did It," the group used "Ants Marching," and "What Would You Say" to inspire crowd sing-a-longs. In fact, the only selections from Dave Matthews Bands' controversial Everyday album were the dark, electric guitar rocker "What You Are" and the acoustic layered "When the World Ends." More surprisingly, Matthews also chose to include the relatively rare and previous unissued "Help Myself," written before the group’s major label debut, and the often-requested fan-favorite "Dancing Nancies." Other concert chestnuts, like Under the Table and Dreaming’s "Warehouse" and Before These Crowded Streets’ "Crush," mixed Matthews' lyrical lexicon with complex solos from Tinsley and Beauford. Auxiliary keyboardist Butch Taylor was also in fine-form ripping through a fifteen-minute version of "Two Step" and giving the group's collective a sense of Dead-like "space." Always a showman, Matthews used his voice as a sixth instrument, performing a somewhat indulgent rap during a jam based around Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth."

Despite their pop leanings, Dave Matthews Band is unquestionably one the tightest groups touring today. Beauford has an uncanny sense of rhythm, keeping the tempo while testing out all sorts of minimalist beats and percussion tricks. Of late, Tinsley has added effects to his fiddle, turning the instrument into a quasi-lead guitar, while Matthews himself proved to be an impressive axe man when sporting his baritone electric guitar. Leroi Moore, while never an amazing saxophonist, has learned to play lower, more auxiliary oriented notes layered nicely between Tinsley and Lessard. Changing time-signatures like the best jam-band and harmonizing like the Beatles, Dave Matthews Band are a unique beast and perhaps the only improvisation -based band able to draw such a wide audience to their pull off such as this Central Park concert.

Unfortunately, as the show began to wind down, Dave Matthews Band' energy began to wane. A predictable version of "Where Are You Going," from Busted Stuff and the Mr. Deeds Soundtrack, lacked the emotional polish of "Crash," while the pretentious bass-intro before "All Along the Watchtower" sounded like an uninspired Victor Wooten workout. Adding insult to injury, Lessard played the national anthem for the second time that evening, taking away from the children's choir's emotional rendition. A set closing "Watchtower" was Matthews' standard fair, but one couldn't help wishing he invited Haynes back to tackle the song's chorus and climatic guitar orgasm.

Though a three-song encore is a treat for Matthews and his cohorts, trademark capstones like "Tripping Billies" and "Best of What's Around" were conspicuously absent. Instead, the group' latest single "Grey Street," "What You Are," and the cheesy "Stay" filled out the setlist. After a three-hour marathon and impressive song selection, it was sad to see the band lose their gusto so close to the end.

Regardless of their sloppy conclusion, Dave Matthews Band did present a truly enjoyable soiree in Central Park. Raising 1.1 million dollars and dragging celebrities ranging from The Duchess of York to Robert Randolph, The Virginia based band threw this generations' largest party. And proving that Matthews will always be within six degrees of celebrity fame, Kevin Bacon, himself, was spotted dancing side-stage.

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