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Dave Matthews' 'Island' filled with sweet jam

August 8, 2006


The noodle dancers were there. So were the ski jumpers, rock climbers, yogurt vendors, ecological petitioners and, most important, six stylistically diverse bands. In short, all was as Dave Matthews wanted it for his second two-day Island Getaway on Randalls Island.

Last year's trek to this surprisingly bucolic locale was so successful that Matthews decided to do another weekend run this summer. (The second installment of this year's festival was yesterday, with David Gray replacing Gov't Mule as Matthews' opening act.

Buoyed by the fine weather, Matthews and his crack band - who exuded the kind of tightness that only comes from 15 years of playing together - regaled fans with a three-hour show. The set list was heavy with old favorites: "What Would You Say," "Dancing Nancies," "Ants Marching." But there were also a few new songs that the band is considering for its next album.

Of these new tunes, "Sister" was the standout. Performing alone on acoustic guitar, Matthews succeeded in making a huge field seem small with his intimate take on the conversational melody. "The Idea of You" was also an excellent addition to the catalog, with a light jazz feel reminiscent of Sting's work in the mid-'80s.

Matthews' voice, however, doesn't measure up to Sting's even during the best of times, which these weren't. Toward the end of the night, he apologized to the audience for the roughness of his singing, and rightly so. Whenever he tried to raise his vocal intensity on tunes such as "Crash Into Me" and "Hunger for the Great Light," all that came out was an unbecoming bellow. (Not that the fans minded - they just bellowed right back.)

Before Matthews' set, singer-guitarist Warren Haynes and his band Gov't Mule took the stage for an hour of scintillating psychedelic rock, distinguished by a hefty injection of Southern soul. And banjo wizard Béla Fleck led his Flecktones through their trademark hybrid of country and jazz with wit and virtuosity.

Both Haynes and Fleck also made guest appearances with the Matthews band, although Fleck's flashy runs on "#41" were far more impressive than Haynes' meandering guitar excursions during a seemingly endless cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer."

It was still early afternoon when the live music started, with an appearance on the festival's second stage by the young San Francisco quartet Tea Leaf Green. Their material was standard-issue jam fare, but guitarist Josh Clark's searing solos helped elevate it above the norm.

Next up was Yonder Mountain String Band, who cleverly filtered bluegrass through a '70s classic-rock prism, goaded on by mandolinist Jeff Austin's exuberant headbanging.

The inauspiciously named Slightly Stoopid closed out the second-stage program. The San Diego band excelled at tripped-out dub-style reggae but fell flat when it tried its hand at blues-rock and hardcore metal.

Dave Matthews Island Getaway. For the second summer in a row, the tribes of jam converge in the middle of the East River, led by superstar Matthews. Seen Saturday at Randalls Island, Manhattan.