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Matthews band still knows how to jam

August 31st, 2006

Group has something for the college kid in everyone at the Bowl

By Zeke Barlow

HOLLYWOOD —To be honest, I had more hair the first time I saw the Dave Matthews Band play. But so did Matthews.

It was 1994 and he was headlining a Richmond, Va., outdoor concert for 5,000 college hippies drunk on the potential of their lives stretching out before them. Matthews and his jam/jazz band were on the edge of their own leap into a limitless future that surely held greater stardom and the coveted title of rock stars.

The band had put out two independent-label records that garnered a huge 20-something following that danced and swayed Deadhead-style, though Matthews' playing was always crisper than Jerry's ramblings.

I grew older, saw a few more shows where I danced and swayed and, over time, like others, wasn't as much of a fan of his slicker, highly produced CDs aimed at catapulting him into stardom. But catapult they did. The group earned one Grammy trophy from five nominations.

Still, I wasn't sure what to expect from Matthews and crew when they played the Hollywood Bowl on Monday night. He had sold out the venue, but did he sell himself out as well?

"It's our very first time at the Hollywood Bowl," the Virginia resident told the crowd after he opened with "Best of What's Around." "I don't want to blow my cover and come off uncool in Los Angeles."

The band followed with a handful of newer, sometimes mellower songs that showed that, over time, the group has only become tighter and jazzier, possibly due to the roots of many of its musicians.

The excellent acoustics provided by the Bowl's shell allowed all the musicians to showcase their talents during the jams, which were some of the most musically satisfying moments of the night.

Boyd Tinsley's violin, which has always set the band apart, is a larger, more powerful presence these days. With his screaming strings hitting the high notes that Matthews' honeycomb voice can't, Tinsley has become as much a frontman as the frontman himself.

Stefan Lessard, who was so young when he joined the band he had to sneak into clubs they were playing, has exploded into a jazzy rock bassist. Rashawn Ross' trumpet, a new addition, nicely rounds out the group.

Though Carter Beauford's drums were as tight as ever, gone was his ubiquitous smile that made him look like he was having more fun than legally allowed.

The crowd responded best to the band's older songs, such as "Ants Marching," and "Warehouse." College girls screamed and hopped up and down, singing along as sweet smoke wafted over the crowd. Maybe this was the Dave Matthews of a decade ago.

But something was different.

He still sings of youthful love and possibility, but some songs are peppered with lyrics of death and time. The new songs and mood don't seem to carry the energy that drew so many to the band in the first place. (Think "Dancing Nancies" lyrics that always got the crowd swaying: "Dark clouds may hang on me sometimes/But I'll work it out/And then I/Look up at the sky"). As the band grew from hungry musicians into full-fledged rock stars, they seem to have graduated from their college rocking jam roots.

Maybe it was the pressure of playing at the storied Hollywood Bowl. Maybe the band has grown in a different direction. Maybe I'm just older.

Two of the best, most rollicking songs of the night were when Matthews invited opener Robert Randolph and his steel guitar on stage. All 18,000 in the crowd were on their feet as Randolph bled his notes into "Smooth Rider," a Matthews song about sex and running from the law.

Now that was a song the college kid in all of us could get into.


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