Dave Matthews at Fenway Park
The Dave Matthews Band are an interesting anomaly. Rolling into Fenway Park last Friday, where they joined a fairly elite list of predecessors (Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffet, the Stones), the quintet, supplemented at times by guests Butch Taylor on keyboards and Rawshawn Ross on trumpet, seemed to embrace not a baseball ethos so much as the rope-a-dope boxing strategy of Muhammad Ali. For those unfamiliar, Ali’s trademark course was to lull an opponent into complacence by deflecting countless blows before snapping, often quite literally, to awareness with an unexpected but well-timed volley of shots. So it went with the DMB. Their musical excursions often passed the ten-minute mark, losing the crowd in a haze of pot smoke, only to turn a meandering corner to deliver a rollicking radio hit.
The DMB has always been one of the more curious creatures in the jam band universe. Like the Grateful Dead, whose dark imagery was often lost beneath buoyant melodies, Matthews is often happy enough to stick to the “eat, drink, and be merry” sensibility of his band’s early hit, “Trippin’ Billies.” What appeared lost among one of the cleanest rock crowds in my recent memory was the follow-up line, “For tomorrow we die.”
There are plenty of dark musings like that in the Matthews Band songbook, which is also full of indulgent musical forays. Crackerjack players all, the band meet their audience on a shaky, self-determined middle ground. For each hooky sing-a-long that delights the assembled, a DMB crowd must also endure the group’s penchant for stretching out musically, and at Fenway the results were decidedly mixed. The band took the plaintive “Bartender” on far too long a diversion only to follow with the easily soaked up “Crash Into Me” and a truly inspired romp through their well worn classic, “Jimi Thing.” At this point the band had accelerated to a peak only to pull back into the eastern stylings of “The Last Stop” and a sincerely dull “Digging A Ditch.” While this approach may keep things interesting for the players on stage, it simply didn’t translate in the vast expanse of Fenway.
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