August 28th, 2006
REVIEW: What brought euphoria last summer felt rote at Dave Matthews Band's Irvine stop.
By BEN WENER - The Orange County Register
The problem with reviewing jam bands in their natural habitat – an outdoor amphitheater packed with frat boys and neo-hippies and engulfed in clouds of pot smoke – is that they defy any sensible analysis, any possible summation of a commonly shared experience.
Reactions to such shows are subjective in the extreme. One acidhead's brilliant half-hour exploration of "Dark Star" is another toker's snoozefest, while the Phish-head who still avidly trades tapes of endless gigs may never get the slightest charge out of an hour from the String Cheese Incident.
Who and what you respond to is deeply personal. And that's what makes encounters with Dave Matthews Band so potentially maddening.
Make no mistake, DMB is primarily a jam outfit, deserving of ranking alongside Phish and the Grateful Dead as the most beloved and bootlegged. Yet it's the only such group that has routinely scored both radio hits and crossover multiplatinum albums.
So its appeal is as much like Sting's as Trey Anastasio's. After a decade of recording, the band's catalog boasts five albums of idiosyncratic, complex yet melodic jazz-rock fusion – heroin for their rabid following – sprinkled with concise smashes that remain staples with a mall-prowling audience that likely couldn't have been paid to groove with hard-core minions Friday at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. (It was the first of three stops in a SoCal run concluding tonight at the Hollywood Bowl.)
I gather Matthews is aware of this duality; it's probably why in 2 1/2 hours he and his trusty players dusted off only two singles, "Crash Into Me" and "Too Much," plus two career-launching favorites, "Satellite" and "Ants Marching."
That's roughly the same as when they headlined Home Depot Center last summer, a better show about which I mildly raved. This time I was bored. Here the many what-shall-we-do-next gaps between songs were as interminable as the set's slow-to-build start (heavy on slumbering pieces like "Dreamgirl" and "Proudest Monkey") and the band's many predictable extended endings, codas that churn relentlessly but, to my ears, rarely burn.
Euphoria, then, proved elusive. Musicianship that held me rapt a year ago – Carter Beauford's crafty, effortless drumming, LeRoi Moore's array of sax accents – this time merely left me admiring.
There is certainly an abundance of talent in this group – every member is essential and ideally employed, with trumpeter Rashawn Ross joining Moore in adding Southern soul to the funkier workouts. (The run from "You Might Die Trying" to an uninterrupted teaming of "So Much to Say" and "Too Much" was perfectly peppered by horn work that owed much to Earth, Wind & Fire.)
But as jazzbos know, even expert chops can't guarantee a transcendent performance, regardless how many dynamic, rousing solos get tucked into a surefire piece such as "Like in Our Graves." Some indescribable ingredient, some incalculable alchemy or extra spark – something more is required to turn an ordinary jamapalooza into a glorious musical communion.
And I just wasn't feeling that Friday night.
Part of me wants to blame the set list: Several tracks from "Crash" (to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I wonder?) plus the sultrier love bits from last year's "Stand Up" (as opposed to that album's stronger sociopolitical statements) and very few selections from the group's best works (1994's "Under the Table and Dreaming" and 1998's "Before These Crowded Streets") adds up to a loping evening of average tunes, if you ask me. No matter how passionately Matthews might holler and howl, no matter how randy his sweet falsetto and rubber-legged dancing.
There were a few standout moments, livelier slices of syncopation to yank back a wandering mind, including a devilishly sexy "Can't Stop," in which a suffering-from-withdrawal Dave repeatedly declares "I'm freezing like a junkie for you." But its inclusion alongside "Break Free," one of two so-so full-band new tunes, only underscored the lyricist's habit of recycling. "I'll take your poison if you fill the cup" and "I'll drink your tears" sure sound like lines we've heard before. (The solo acoustic "Sister," in the encore, felt fresher.)
And as tremendous as it often was, the set-closing jam on "Louisiana Bayou" featuring the remarkable talent of pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph was a repeat. They did it equally powerfully last August, the only difference here being an improv warm-up that eventually gelled around Kanye West's "Gold Digger."
That said, it at least unleashed the riveting Randolph in ways his confident but rote 45-minute opening turn with his Family Band didn't. That brought heat to an often cold, monotonous evening of immense skill yet little magic.
But something about the roar of the well-juiced crowd reminds me that I'm probably alone in that assessment.