Fans of the Dave Matthews Band have no idea what is going to come out of its frontman’s mouth when he steps onto the stage.
As any longtime DMB devotee knows, that’s mainly because he never plays the same setlist in a live setting twice; so, for instance, on Tuesday night at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion, Matthews performed just seven of the same songs (out of 20) that he played last week in Raleigh — and three of them were kinda-obligatory tracks off of the band’s 2018 album “Come Tomorrow.”
But he also tends to blurt out whatever is on his mind between songs, with sometimes-bizarre results.
If you heard him as a guest on Howard Stern’s Sirius XM radio show last month, for example, you may remember him referring to new track “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” — which he sang in Raleigh but not Charlotte — as being “almost like a porn movie that’s got no porn in it.” At another point, after he granted Stern’s request to “do a little” of “Crash Into Me” — arguably his signature song, which he sang in Charlotte but not Raleigh — Matthews instead wound up doing a lot, then nervously explained: “Once I jump into it, then I gotta get to the other side or I’m gonna drown and get eaten by alligators.”
Meanwhile, his attempts at profundity can cause nearly as much head-scratching as his attempts at quippy humor. On Tuesday night, after taking a huge gulp from a Yeti with a teabag tag hanging out of it and mopping sweat from his forehead, he had a heart-to-heart with the audience.
“When I get up here and it feels right, I remember how lucky I am to be part of this family,” Matthews said. “And sometimes ... I want to sing about my family. We’re really just one family when it comes down to it. That’s just the way I see it, you know, because if you don’t look look after each other, it doesn’t help anybody. So the only way for us to be included is if we’re all included. ’Cause if everybody’s left out, we’re not all included. So maybe that’ll happen one day, I don’t know. But right now, it’s nice to be here with you, my family.”
The crowd cheered every sentence, but I challenge anyone who was there to email me and explain what on earth he was really talking about. What point was he trying to make? (A reminder, if it helps you: He used that speech to launch into new song “Come Tomorrow,” which starts with an old man griping about the state of the world and ends up confident that today’s children will eventually save it. It didn’t help me, but...)
For better or worse, though, that’s the most he said all night between songs. For the other 2 hours and 43 minutes that Matthews was on stage, the singer/guitarist stuck to what he does best: pouring all of his energy and talent into creating often-freewheeling live renditions of a grab bag of songs from a catalog that spans 25 years.
I’d argue that he leaned a liiiiiiitle too heavily on the new album — though poppy opener “Do You Remember” had fans attentive simply because it was the first number, the venue seemed to fill with thousands of individual conversations during “Again and Again,” “Come Tomorrow,” “She,” “Here on Out” and “Come On Come On.” But new stuff aside, those in the largely Gen-X crowd appeared to hug and/or high-five three notes into pretty much every song Matthews trotted out.
DMB classic “Lie in Our Graves,” from 1996’s “Crash,” was an early favorite thanks to a mesmerizing solo by guitarist Tim Reynolds, who ground away at his instrument for 4 1/2 minutes with his head down, his eyes hidden behind shades, his long grey hair falling into his face, and his feet not moving.
A few songs later came another highlight: “Everyday,” from the 2001 album of the same name — a celebration of love that felt spiritual from the start, due to the fact that fans almost immediately began singing “Honey, honey / Come and dance with me” when Matthews launched into it. (Some history on that tradition is here, for the uninitiated.)
But perhaps the Dave-iest part of the show came at just about the halfway point. With a smirk-smile glued to his face and a tendency to break out into goofy, knee-knocking dances, he took 1994’s “Typical Situation” and turned it into a 16-minute opus that started out softly and dream-like; then transmogrified into one long jazz-rock jam session that gave all six band members — Reynolds, drummer Carter Beauford, bassist Stefan Lessard, trumpeter Rashawn Ross, saxophonist Jeff Coffin and keyboardist Buddy Strong — a chance to ham it up; then dissolved into a delicate finish of light shaker-playing by Beauford and soft ivory-tickling by Strong.
This show was, incidentally, Strong’s first whirl with the Dave Matthews Band on a stage in Charlotte. And it was an impressive one. Strong — who has worked for Usher, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry and Selena Gomez — proved himself particularly adept on the organ, an instrument that gave a soulful, playful sound to songs like DMB anthem “Ants Marching” and an exuberant cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”
Also, anytime the roving camera operator fixed his lens on that keyboard, fans who looked up at the Jumbotrons got a visual treat: I’ve rarely if ever seen fingers fly so fast as Strong’s. (Note: Strong essentially replaced Boyd Tinsley earlier this year, when the longtime violinist left the band amid allegations of sexual harassment by trumpeter James Frost-Winn of Crystal Garden, a group assembled by Tinsley.)
But the star, by far, was Matthews. Over the course of nearly three hours, as he progressed from the almost-all-falsetto “Again and Again” to the primal scream at the end of show-closer “All Along the Watchtower,” the bandleader’s voice actually seemed to get stronger — and his guitar-playing did, too. Literally.
During the first run through the chorus of “Crash Into Me,” he strummed the strings on his acoustic guitar so vigorously that he broke one. Matthews soldiered on with it until a stagehand rushed out with a replacement, at which point he continued to sing the second verse while pulling the instrument off over his head and sliding on the backup. Then he kept smirk-smiling and strumming as if nothing had happened.
After all, once he jumps into it, he’s gotta get to the other side or he’s gonna drown and get eaten by alligators.
Dave Matthews Band’s setlist
1. “Do You Remember”
2. “Big Eyed Fish”
3. “Lie in Our Graves”
4. “Time Bomb”
5. “Again and Again”
6. “Tripping Billies”
8. “You Might Die Trying”
9. “Come Tomorrow”
10. “Funny the Way It Is”
11. “Typical Situation”
12. “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel cover)
14. “Ants Marching”
15. “Here on Out”
16. “Crash Into Me”
17. “Don’t Drink the Water”
18. “Come On Come On”
20. “All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan cover)