Curious one, this. Pulled from a summer 1997 Bay Area gig, which featured an incendiary Los Lobos opening set (and a sit-in later), Dave Matthews eases the proceedings along slowly. Indeed, the 17th volume in the Live Trax series is notable for a new song, a killer cover, and some smoking guest work on an average night for the marquee touring act.
Early on, the late LeRoi Moore’s sax is textured, yet not engaging. Nor are the soaring, sincere sameness of the vocals. Matthews’ banter sounds tired, and his lyrical delivery is rote and uninspiring. Which is all very confusing because the crowd sounds ready to go, and yet, the band isn’t really able to improvise in that frozen moment. And that’s all right, because DMB would go on to become one of the world’s biggest live acts, doing this shtick year after year, and if the thing works, well, then let it roll on, eh?
Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin shows up on sax on “Jimi Thing,” and pushes DMB into a sweet jam, playing well with Moore, while extracting a moment of invigorating grandeur. Berlin’s bandmate, guitarist David Hidalgo, drops by on “Lie in Our Graves,” and splashes subtle and beautiful colors throughout the song’s particular boundaries, before the song and set come to an awkward coda.
The second set begins with a dense, hypnotic, striking step forward, however, on an inspired reading of Daniel Lanois’ “For the Beauty of Wynona.” Matthews buries himself in the persona of the narrator, and the band is taut and true. Berlin and Hidalgo, again, guest. The latter plays a dark and majestic solo, and the band, as a whole, play with vigorous restraint. This performance is pure magic, and Matthews and company manage to capture lightning in a bottle for a genuinely powerful moment.
So it is frustrating to listen to the rest of the set, never quite building on that promising opening momentum. The violin solos sound oddly shrill, the acoustic guitar hums and shimmers along in its fast-paced arc, bass and drums interact, and sax solos shoot forward in a linear fashion as DMB offers up some of its more familiar material from a sensual “Crash into Me” to a warm “Tripping Billies.” A brief bit of soul and acoustic and drums and bass and effects and sax infuse a cool little run through “Anyone Seen the Bridge,” before the band kicks into another crowd-pleaser, the driving “Too Much.” A debut performance of “Leave Me Praying” (an early version of what would become “Don’t Drink the Water”) recaptures some of the darkness and complexity which was so interesting about the second set opener, and is a clear highlight, as well. You can see Matthew’s visions and imagery as he recites the lyrics, scats, sings in and out of frame, and delivers his most profound vocal performance of the night.
But DMB’s weird inability to play in anything but a coffee house confessional motif, or, contrarily, an escalating percussive style is occasionally distracting, and often, quite frankly, monotonous. It leads one to ponder the tunes’ validity, rather than enjoy their succinct essence. As passionate as the band may be, year after year, playing sold-out gigs to happy fans, and warming hearts, the quizzical thought still lingers during the playback of this gig: that DMB found its niche, and have stood firm within that chosen identity. Alas, I have not come here to praise famous men, but to wonder why they are to begin with.