Matthews bland as ever

July 8, 2001


McDonald's doesn't mess with the Big Mac. Kellogg's doesn't tinker with the cornflake. And the Dave Matthews Band will always be the Dave Matthews Band--at least as long as sellout crowds continue to buy concert tickets and T-shirts.

As the enormously successful groove band sauntered into Soldier Field on Friday for the first of a two-night stand, considerable controversy swirled around it.

Some hard-core Daveheads feel betrayed by the South African crooner's last album, "Everyday," which was short on jams and long on radio-friendly tunes crafted with corporate-hack songwriter Glen Ballard. Many prefer the unofficial Internet release, "The Lillywhite Sessions," an album of more typical fare that Matthews recorded with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite, then scrapped when he suffered a midlife crisis.

But despite the radical (for Dave) presence of an electric guitar (!) on a half-dozen songs, Matthews' first Soldier Field performance was pretty much Matthews as usual--better than some of his shows (the first hour was particularly concise and tuneful), but still several ZIP codes away from the same

neighborhood as great rock 'n' roll.

The approach of the Dave Matthews Band could be summed up by one moment in its bombastic cover of "All Along the Watchtower."

Of all the great lines in this mighty Dylan tune to "punch," what did Matthews and his bandmates emphasize? "No reason to get excited."

The DMB does not believe in sweating, and its fans have no problem with that. Ask a casual devotee (as opposed to a diehard) what he likes about the music, and you'll hear words like "soothing" and "relaxing." You get the impression that the band could ride drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard's slightly jazzy shuffle groove well into the next millennium, and the fans would just keep bopping along.

The little color that existed in Matthews' monochromatic three-hour set (what shade of mauve do you prefer?) came from his gruff-voiced vocals and the occasional flatulent explosions of violinist Boyd Tinsley and woodwinds player LeRoi Moore, who had such disdain for his audience that he actually tossed a few bars of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into one of his John Coltrane-in-hell hot-air fests.

To repeat: Prime offenders Moore and Tinsley checked their worst impulses for a significant portion of Friday's show. They waited a dozen songs to really go off, but then they powered a 20-minute version of "Seek Up" that was as indulgent, pointless and boring as anything the band has ever done, and the rest of the show was all downhill.

The fans loved it, however, and the songs from "Everyday" meshed pretty seamlessly with longtime favorites such as "Tripping Billies."

By the end of the night, it seemed as if Dave's straying had been forgiven. No reason to get excited after all.

Without a word of explanation, advertised opener Macy Gray was replaced by west African singer Angelique Kidjo, who delivered a spirited 25-minute set of entrancing grooves, and Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, who eschewed the hollow showboating he displayed when opening for the Rolling Stones in favor of a fiery 40-minute set that was every bit as inspired as his new album, "Sweet Tea."