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Dave Matthews Band at Fenway: Gruop Can't match the size and reach of the old ballpark

July 7th, 2006

By JAY N. MILLER - The Patriot Ledger

fenway5.jpg‘Can you believe we’re playing such a wonderful, historic building?’’ Dave Matthews said before his second song Friday night.

Actually, Fenway Park is a baseball stadium, and Matthews might have paid more attention to the dynamics and pacing necessary to keep 35,000 fans up and rocking. Which isn’t to say the Dave Matthews Band’s nearly three-hour set wasn’t musically diverse and occasionally delightful. It’s just that too much of it seemed geared for a smaller venue like the Orpheum, or even a cozy jazz club like the Regattabar. When three-quarters of the people present are so far away the musicians are about thumbnail-size, no manner of video screens can substitute for good old-fashioned rock energy.

To its credit, the DMB performed two almost totally separate sets Friday and Saturday, with the only repeat being ‘‘Can’t Stop.’’ Saturday’s set featured more of Matthews’ hook-filled earlier hits, along with a cover of the perennial baseball rallying tune ‘‘Sweet Caroline.’’

Friday was more a night for mellow, reflective material, much of it his later work, and too much of it stuck in a mid-tempo maze. Sound quality varied, and Matthews’ vocals were not very distinct, but neither were lead instruments such as Boyd Tinsley’s electric violin, or guest Rashawn Ross’ trumpet.

Whereas last year’s Rolling Stones concert had the stage set up in left-center field, with some spectators in the right field corner able to see the side of the stage, the DMB stage was set in dead-center, rendering all of the bleachers and two sections of right field useless for seats.

The infield was off-limits, so there seemed fewer on-field seats. From the right field grandstand, Matthews looked about an inch high, and the sound never locked in with anything resembling consistency. Video screens on either side, and two set up at skewed angles behind the performers, helped a bit, but it was too much like watching TV. That is, like watching a TV show with throngs of dedicated Dave fans of all ages, many swirling, dancing and partying for all three hours. If the smell of pot was any more pervasive, Bill Lee would be making a comeback. Below us, a woman waved her home-made sign, a takeoff on Matthews’ 1994 album, ‘‘Under the Table and Dreaming,’’ which read ‘‘Under the Fenway Lights and Dreaming.’’

Matthews and company opened with three straight low-key, ruminative jazz tunes. Tinsley’s violin worked well in contrast to the fiery rhythm section of drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard in the ballad ‘‘Pig,’’ but Matthews’ vocals were too soft. The familiar fan favorite ‘‘Satellites’’ roused the crowd from Tinsley’s first plucked notes, and the syncopated tempos of ‘‘Grey Street’’ promised the night was finally rolling.

‘‘Bartender’’ had its moments, to be sure, from an ominous shuffle start to its anthemic chorus, but it was extended well past 15 minutes. The smoothly hypnotic hook of ‘‘Crash Into Me’’ was a superb moment of communal bliss, and then Ross’ trumpet remade ‘‘Jimi Thing’’ into a new rendition, including a quote from Buffalo Springfield’s old ‘‘For What It’s Worth.’’

The Middle Eastern tinge to ‘‘Last Stop’’ was a marvelous new flavor, which resolved into sweeping rock. But then a soporific ‘‘Digging a Ditch’’ drained the momentum, before Tinsley led a torrid gallop through ‘‘Tripping Billies.’’ (Tinsley’s verve was in such contrast to the leader’s ultra-casual tone; at several points, it seemed this should be The Boyd Tinsley Band.)

‘‘Louisiana Bayou’’ was another forgettable mid-tempo tune, but the set-closing ‘‘Ants Marching’’ was an exhilarating finale. LeRoi Moore’s sax and Ross’ trumpet made the encore of ‘‘Smooth Rider’’ a smoldering gem, and ‘‘Stay’’ provided some of the potency Matthews had been hiding all night.

Sheryl Crow and her quartet swung for the fences from the start, and more than one fan noted her sound seemed better, too. Hits like ‘‘If It Makes You Happy,’’ and ‘‘Soak Up the Sun’’ were surefire winners, of course, but Crow dug deeper into her catalog for ‘‘My Favorite Mistake’’ and ‘‘Every Day Is a Winding Road.’’ And her incendiary cover of AC/DC’s ‘‘Rock ’n’ Roll’’ was just the shot of adrenaline this size venue needed.

Crow, who was treated for breast cancer earlier this year, also spent part of her Friday visiting patients at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.