Matthews in top form as season kicks off

By Jeff Miers NEWS POP MUSIC CRITIC

The Dave Matthews Band performed double duty on Wednesday evening before what appeared to be a full house at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. Not only did Matthews and his cohorts kick off their 2009 “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” tour, but the band did so while simultaneously ringing the bell for the summer concert season in the Buffalo area.

The evening was electric from the get-go. Following an opening set from Robert Randolph and the Family Band — that group plays the

Thursday at the Square series in June — Matthews walked onto the stage just as the lights dimmed, to a mighty roar of applause. Just as he made it to the microphone, a torrential downpour commenced.

All of this tumultuous weather seemed to egg the crowd on, and before the band had even played a note, the place was in full-on earsplitting applause mode. Somehow, the weather seemed to push things to a more intense level, a higher plane.

That was fitting, since Matthews and band were kicking off the tour to mark the release — next Tuesday — of a new album. “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” is the band’s first collection of new songs since the unexpected death last August of founding member and saxophonist Leroi Moore. “GrooGrux King” is both named for and dedicated to Moore, and it is filled with songs celebrating the man’s life. It also happens to be the finest Matthews Band record since the now decade-old “Before These Crowded Streets.”

Not surprisingly, Wednesday’s tour-opening and season-commencing gig was centered around songs from the new album, with the requisite favorites thrown in to keep the masses happy. Following the acknowledgment of the torrent, and the attendant applause, Matthews led the band into “Funny How It Is,” a song that captures the man’s metaphysics aptly. Atop a groove that melds the meticulous muted guitar figures of Matthews’ native South Africa to a decidedly African-American funk groove, the band did what it does with such grace — present a folk tune as world music, all the while letting Matthews’ percussive guitar attack and drummer Carter Beauford’s agile drum presence lead the way.

Perhaps positing an over-arching theme to a DMB show is a bit pointless. Most, from a casual glance around, came to Wednesday’s show to party. Did they realize the band was using them to aid in the healing process following Moore’s death? Some among the assembled seemed to. They cheered in the appropriate spots when new saxophonist Jeff Coffin — erstwhile member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones — stepped into Moore’s shoes for extended, funk-based workouts.

So “Spaceman,” another song from the forthcoming record, featured a lilting trumpet solo from horn-man Rashawn Ross, and extended spotlights were offered to both Coffin and guitarist Tim Reynolds throughout the evening. It all seemed far less like a somber noting of Moore’s passing than an exuberant, New Orleans celebration of the man’s influence.

Later, “You Might Die Trying” was given a full-bore workout, and several songs from the band’s considerable canon reared their head to abundant applause. But most certainly, it was the new material which provided the DMB with the material it needed to make this night a simply stellar one. With outstanding soloists in Reynolds, Coffin and Ross, the persistent world music vibe by the virtuosic Beauford, and the familiar contributions of violinist Boyd Tinsley, the band turned in its finest local performance in a decade.

The high point of the evening came with “Why I Am,” a “GrooGrux” song clearly aimed at celebrating Moore’s spirit. Here, Matthews strapped on an electric guitar, abandoning his favored acoustic, and poured his heart out.

 

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