Dave Matthews and Friends, Fleet Center, Boston- 12/16
Isn't criticizing "and-friends" type shows for lack of musical cohesiveness (especially where Dave Matthews is concerned) kind of missing the point? These are relaxed atmosphere affairs where friends and like-minded musicians get together in a workshop setting and see what comes of it. The material comes mostly from the namesake of the pickup group (in this case, Dave's 2003 Some Devil solo offerings, which run the gamut from superb to disastrous adult contemporary), with some chestnuts from a few other players’ "home bands" and some (hopefully) well-chosen covers.
And of course, there will always be as many blown opportunities as there will be surprises, especially in a group that has a front line of Dave, Tim Reynolds and Trey Anastasio (there were, for example, unfounded rumors that we’d get an "Eyes of the World," which Tim and Dave have done together on rare occasion, and would have been a stellar choice for this ensemble). While, in the end, the Fleet Center show was a bit too relaxed and "mailed in" at certain points, it had enough individual moments of greatness to both satiate the crowd and offer a glimpse of what mind have been had this "pickup" band practiced for six months and then hit the road. While that’s not often the point of such a gathering, there’s enough chemistry among these players that they could conceivably gel into a formidable super band, a la Frogwings, with a wider repertoire and more defined roles for its lead players.
The mini Dave-and-Tim set was a sumptuous appetizer, executed with their usual acoustic duo bravura and, surprisingly, without losing any intimacy in the large arena setting. Dave was in high spirits right from the get-go, and among six selections from the vast DMB catalogue, treated the old school Daveheads to the rare gem "Pay for What You Get," and closed by segueing the brooding "Typical Situation" into "Dancing Nancies," perhaps the best song Matthews has ever written and ideally suited to the two-man acoustic combo. Tim smoked the solo section, incorporating flamenco licks into his uniquely manic brand of improvisation. He’s such a protean player self-taught and technically awe-inspiring, he seems to know these songs as well as Dave by now, and he exploits the subtle nuances in songs like "Nancies" and "Crush" (nuances that the DMB has itself gotten lazy about in recent years), and mining them for improvisational nuggets.
It’s a shame, then, that we would not hear equally passionate soloing from Reynolds during the electric set, and the reason is that neither Dave nor the rest of the band members have yet figured out how to balance the styles of both Tim and Trey simultaneously. Both are flamboyant, psychedelic, groovy soloists who love to really dig in when the spotlight is on but are also humble about sharing it. Both Tim and Trey spent most of the electric set trying not to step on what the other was doing, and as a result the audience continued to wait for the transcendent electric showdown that would never come, even though the opportunity presented itself in almost every song. Jams on many of Some Devil’s better songs, notably the opening "Dodo" and later "Stay or Leave," felt anticlimactic and wrapped far too quickly without the mellow, groovy breakdowns they deserved. There’s something missing when both lead guitarists offered their best solos elsewhere in the show (Tim during the acoustic set and Trey sitting in with Emmylou Harris for a transcendent reading of Daniel Lanois’ "The Maker").
In fact, it was the band’s non-marquee players that held the whole amorphous unit together. Drummer Brady Blade and bassist Tony Hall, both from Spyboy and both more seriously funky than Dave really deserves in a rhythm section, were able to lock into a groove and stay there, adding a meaty foundation to otherwise meandering, lighter-than-air songs like "So Damn Lucky," and "Oh" and the pseudo-turmoil of songs like "Gravedigger" and "Trouble." And what an untapped asset in Ray Paczkowski, who proved a far more aggressive keyboard foil than DMB fans are used to in unofficial DMB sixth man Butch Taylor. Even Dave himself had his moment to shine his electric, alone-in-the-spotlight slow burn on "Some Devil" was the one song that channeled the darkness at the root of most of his solo material.
The cover selections were a mixed bag, as they usually are with this type of thing. Peter Gabriel’s "Solsbury Hill" was an early highlight Dave nailed the airy vocals and the band leaped into the song’s groovy, uplifting ending with a funky, world beat rhythm, reminiscent of early Rusted Root. Stevie Wonder’s "Tell Me Something Good" was a surprising choice, and confident, if sloppy, and saw Dave, Tony Hall and Tim funking all over the stage as if the mothership were landing. Reynolds, who had been fairly reticent for the majority of the electric set, finally cut loose and ripped into an incendiary Eddie Hazel-type solo.
Other covers did not fare so well. Bob Dylan’s "Oh Sister," for which Dave invited Emmylou Harris up to duet, quickly fell apart. Ms. Emmylou lost all of her swagger because she had to read off a lyrics sheet (it’s been almost 25 years since Harris recorded the song with its author on the 1979 Dylan masterpiece Desire), and Dave’s vocalizing doesn’t have the needed heft for that heavy era of Dylan. The Band’s "Up On Cripple Creek" was a similar mess Trey sand lead and did his best Levon Helm impression while Dave bounced around with a shit-eating grin on his face, forcing Hall and Blade to slow the tempo because he couldn’t keep up. A mediocre bar-band reading of a terrific song, and a strange selection, given there are other Band songs that are obviously more compatible (a funky "Ophelia" with some slippery Tim slide would have smoked).
If there were lagging moments in the main set however, the final four-song run and a tip-top encore gave, along with the smoldering Dave and Tim acoustic set, solid beginning-and-end bookends to a serviceable, if slight middle. "Save Me" revealed tasteful alt country, and the closing Beatles nugget, "Hey Bulldog," saw some much-needed elbow grease from Spyboy guitarist Buddy Miller, who laced the jam with a Bobby Lee Rodgers-esque country rock solo. The three-song encore brought the night’s best surprise: a solo Dave-and-Trey segment that included DMB’s "Everyday" and a version of Phish’s "Waste" that was just touching enough to distract from the fact that Dave and Trey aren’t exactly Paul and Art when it comes to harmonizing. But the final run of songs, wrapping with Billy Preston’s gospel-tinged "Will It Go Round In Circles" was more than enough to make up for the night’s many other missed opportunities.
The show’s funk overtones were a curious and unexpected highlight of this band, and while Dave Matthews Band itself is a bit too pop-rock-and-roots to ever truly bring the funk, if you listen to the vintage, 20+ minute jams on, say, a "#41" or "Jimi Thing" you’ll realize that this is a side we rarely get of Dave, and one he should definitely nurture.