September 23rd, 2006
BY MELISSA RUGGIERI TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Dave Matthews strolled out with his bandmates, hugged his acoustic guitar to his chest and waited. For about four minutes, the band wandered around the stage, smiling, pointing at the screeching crowd and simply reveling in their homecoming.
For a guy who earned his first paychecks as a musician playing dingy clubs and making drunken frat boys feel invincible, it was only fitting that Matthews' return to Charlottesville was adjacent to the U.Va. campus.
He and his unwaveringly solid band kicked into the opening "Rapunzel" sounding so crisp that the notes practically broke in midair. For more than two hours last night, the Dave Matthews Band officially christened the new John Paul Jones Arena (which technically opened last month) with a set list that zigzagged through its 15-year career, but always retained a special layer of comfort for a hometown crowd that included Gov. Tim Kaine and his family.
"I think I'll drive my own car home when I leave," Matthews drawled, before sliding into a reconfigured "Everyday." The 39-year-old frontman still looks like the neighborhood lawn guy in his jeans and dark shirt with the sleeves rolled up. But it's his continuously cocked eyebrow and mischievous grin, which make him look as if he's smiling even when he's not, that complete Matthews' regular dude persona.
Matthews might always be the centerpiece visually but, musically, drummer Carter Beauford -- perhaps the best in the biz right now -- and fiddler Boyd Tinsley give this band its soul.
Tinsley's star turn came on the dense and funky "Louisiana Bayou" from last year's overlooked "Stand Up" album. Galloping across every inch of the airy stage, Tinsley thrust himself in each band member's face with his swinging fiddle for a thrilling solo. He even whipped his dreadlocked head so violently that his omnipresent dark shades fell off, but his gleaming grin never subsided.
However you choose to classify DMB's mashing of rock, folk, funk and jazz, it's always more appealing live, where it can breathe, than on its tightly produced records. Sometimes, the orgy of sound that constructs the band's songs is a bit much to wade through, but at least on stage, these practiced jams can expand as much as necessary.
Matthews was in fine vocal form -- likely a byproduct of having a week off from performing -- hitting some sweet notes on a trancelike "Proudest Monkey" (texturized with LeRoi Moore's fluttering sax) and growling loudly and aggressively over Beauford's double bass drum on "Hunger for the Great Light."
As a reminder that these C'ville shows aren't the norm -- tonight's gig wraps the band's summer tour -- Matthews trotted out several guests, including trumpeter John D'earth and guitarist Joe Lawlor, who injected a welcome jolt of bluesy electric guitar to "Rhyme & Reason."
Bassist Stefan Lessard, the most unassuming of the group, briefly took the spotlight for the intro to "Can't Stop," but it was Matthews' passionate singing as he stood hunched over the microphone, sweating and scrunching his eyebrows, that was most memorable.
The band -- augmented by its longtime touring keyboardist, local guy Butch Taylor, and a second trumpeter, Rashawn Ross invited opening act Robert Randolph to tear up "Two Step," another reason for the crowd of about 15,000 to remain standing and blissfully involved.
Pedal steel guitar wizard Randolph and his Family Band opened the night with a sizzling 45-minute set that ranged from the psychedelic funk of "Good Times" to a stirring version of "People Get Ready."
Though seated in a wooden chair, Randolph convulsed and twitched like a man possessed as he played the vocal parts of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" on the pedal steel while bassist (and cousin) Danyel Morgan slunk through the song's backbone.
If tight musicianship is a draw, the double punch of these guys and DMB is a tough bill to match.