The other day, someone asked me to describe Dave Matthews Band in three words or fewer. I believe I said "Jazzy, jammy pop." But that really doesn't come close to describing just who and what Dave Matthews is.
Just as Kenny Chesney has become the concert industry's new Jimmy Buffett, Dave — never Mr. Matthews, always just Dave — is its new Jerry Garcia. Sure, he's not as cuddly, and he's got a little darker edge, but the way he manages to charm fanatical college-aged keg-tappers, summer after summer, like moths drawn to the spark of an American Spirit …
Yep, Dave is jam music's new god.
Everyone at Wednesday's soldout concert at the Ford Amphitheatre seemed to think so. From the moment a backlit Dave first appeared from behind a giant curtain, acoustic guitar clutched close to his chest, shoulders in that familiar half-shrug, they were cheering.
Now a four-piece, following the death last August of saxman LeRoi Moore, Dave Matthews Band keeps plugging away on the shed circuit each summer. For fans who come to tailgate all day long, it might as well be a federal holiday.
Balding and stubbly-chinned, Dave can still break into his trademark white-man's shuffle when he feels like it. Some of his band's songs Wednesday night (opener Funny the Way It Is, One Sweet World, Seven) were funky-smelling rockers, and he snarled and yelped his way through them all.
But then he went and got all soft on us during the encore, with the lovely, acoustic Baby Blue, and we all remembered that Dave can still write a mean pop lullaby, too.
Sonically, Dave Matthews Band members are more aligned with roots artists or jazz-popsters like Peter Gabriel than the Grateful Dead, but the jam spirit is definitely part of their live show. Some songs on the night were absolute noodlefests — like the familiar tune Crush, which devolved from audience sing-along to 11-minute bandwide N'awlins funk jam. Not that anyone complained.
When appropriate, the rest of the band took over. Taking Moore's place on sax was Grammy-winner Jeff Coffin of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and he went nuts on the massive jam Lying on the Hands of God. On the acoustic-ish Lie in Our Graves, lanky, dreadlocked violinist Boyd Tinsley burst into a euphoric fit of euphoric fiddlin' that brought the crowd to its feet. If the devil was there, he went home empty-handed.
Over the course of two and a half sweltering hours, Dave played a few songs only casual fans might know, such as the joyous Stay and the bright 'n' bubbly Satellite. He closed with the band's signature slow-burning Stairway to Heaven-esque cover of All Along the Watchtower, and of course, everyone knew that one, too.
But complaining about the absence of Dave singles like, say, What Would You Say (which, according to the comprehensive fan site antsmarching.org, the band hasn't played live since Sept. 28, 2008) misses the point.
No one went to a Grateful Dead show to hear Truckin' for the thousandth time. They were there to see their hero get funky like he never had before. Year in and year out, that's exactly what Dave keeps trying to do for his fans.
In fact, here are three more words about Dave Matthews for you:
Jam's. New. King.
Jay Cridlin can be reached at email@example.com. You can also check out the Soundcheck blog at blogs.tampabay.com/tbt.