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Dave Matthews jam a crowd-pleaser

The official corporate worriers at RCA, the label that signed the Dave Matthews Band in 1993, probably long ago quit stressing out about concert strategies like the one the jam-oriented pop band employed Saturday night at the Ice Palace.

The quintet, whose summer arena trek is expected to draw 1.5-million fans, opted to play just one song (The Stone) from their most recent studio release, 1998's triple-platinum Before These Crowded Streets.

The South African-born singer-songwriter and his bandmates, instead of giving their latest CD the hard sell, focused on a long, satisfying set of tour staples.

They also introduced a pair of tunes reportedly slated for their next album, tentatively scheduled for release in November: Bartender, built on a heavy riff punched by LeRoi Moore's baritone saxophone, was told from the point of view of a bar patron seeking a mystical libation; and the slow, funk-edged Grey Street was sung partly in falsetto.

Label marketing types, though, probably couldn't have been happier with the highs spirits and friendly vibe of the 2-hour concert, and the enthusiastic response of the near-sellout crowd of about 18,000.

Matthews, nice-guy persona, Average Joe looks and happy feet in full effect, opened strong with hard strumming on his acoustic-electric guitar, followed by Boyd Tinsley's rambunctious fiddling and the full band's attack on old favorite Warehouse. Matthews, Moore, Tinsley, powerhouse drummer Carter Beauford and arty bassist Stefan Lessard were joined by auxiliary keyboardist Butch Taylor.

The group offered an expansive reading of 41, with Tinsley and Moore (on flute and then tenor sax) taking off for jazzy extended improvisations. Lie in Our Graves, too, benefited from some stretching out. Matthews eventually led the way to the giddy, octave-jumping vocals of So Much to Say, the martial beat and fiddle/soprano sax riff of Ants Marching and two other similarly perky favorites _ Too Much, What Would You Say and Tripping Billies.

For the encore, the band went with the quiet, previously unreleased Busted Stuff, with Matthews tossing out some playful wordless vocals to match the sound of Moore's soprano sax, and a rambunctious blitz through All Along the Watchtower. The Bob Dylan folk-rock standard, included on the band's 1997 Live at Red Rocks CD, turned into an exhilarating jam, complete with inspired organ and tenor sax solos.

The DMB left us wanting more, which isn't something that could be said about opening act Vertical Horizon. The Boston-based quartet, labelmates of the headliners, turned in a mix of inoffensive modern rock 'n' roll and pop harmonies, in a blend that was pleasant if less than distinctive.

The band has already generated a strong buzz, as indicated by the eager reception given to Heart in Hand, We Are and the title track from last year's Everything You Want. Singers-guitarists Matt Scannell and Keith Kane, also demonstrated a sense of humor, inserting My Favorite Things into one piece and tacking a few bars of Rush's power-rocking The Spirit of Radio onto the end of another.