There is hardly an acoustic guitar anywhere that hasn’t had “Satellite” or “Crash” devotedly butchered on it, just as once upon a time “Stairway to Heaven” was habitually mangled. Matthew’s followers a so fervent that it is hard to find a word said against him.
It is a little unclear why Matthews is so stunningly popular. As his set at the Fleet Center on April 8 showed, he has an abundant gift for agile-yet-wiry melodies. Beginning with “So Much To Say,” the opening song from what is still possibly his greatest album, Crash, Matthews spiced up a set largely drawn from Crash with a few old standards and unreleased songs. He shied away from the material on his latest album, Everyday, save for the two obligatory monster singles “I Did It” and “The Space Between.” Matthews’ band was incredibly tight, each member playing their part with aplomb and fading into the background skillfully for the songs where they were not featured. Carter Beauford, drummer and backing vocalist, was the most impressive element. On “Lie in Our Graves,” the introductory coupling of guitar, voice and drums was about as exciting as Matthews gets.
At times though, the excitement was a little mysterious. In particular, Boyd Tinsley, the stunningly sculpted violinist, seemed about as incapable of building his epic solos around more than four notes as he was of including more than one of those notes in a single bowing. His frantic, headbanging sawing on “Lie In” was unquestionably high energy and exhilarating at times, but was not nearly as articulate as the taut, focused solos of saxophonist Leroi Moore.
Matthews displayed some agile ankle-twiddling and bassist Stefan Lessard let his knee bend into the groove once in a while, but in general the band seemed to rely more on their impressive array of lights and a rapidly-edited live footage screen to provide the visual element of the show.
Matthews included a liberal sprinkling of new and unreleased songs in the set, but none of these had the ricocheting energy of his older tracks, or even the cocky swagger of “Don’t Drink The Water.” “Digging a Ditch,” from the unreleased-unless-you-own-a-computer Lillywhite sessions, had a sweet, embracing melody, something Matthews mastered with “Satellite.”
But, and don’t tell this to the large guy waving the “rock on” symbol in between “we’re not worthy” bowing-down in front, many of these new songs sounded like Five For Fighting knock-offs.
Which brings us back to the original point—why is Matthews so astronomically popular amongst American college kids? His fame has not spread far beyond U.S. borders—a British magazine article last summer described him performing in almost complete anonymity in Trafalgar Square in London, until a gaggle of American exchange students showed up to get an autograph.
In part, he is surfing the wave of the current American taste for jam-bands. But there are certainly jammier bands out there, even if Matthews was hawking his guitar-sax-violin combo back in the days when such a set up might be all it took to get you sandwiched between world music and jazz in musical limbo. Nor do his discerning ear and talented band seem to warrant the encomiums accorded him—there are far more talented bands going entirely unnoticed and most radio-listeners still don’t know who Jeff Buckley is.
Matthews recent adoption of an electric guitar on Everday has been misguidedly compared to Bob Dylan’s famous decision to “plug in.”While Dylan’s move was a rejection of the folkie culture that had been his mainstay, while Matthews is merely a broadening of a skillfully used musical palette. Or possibly a bowing down to commercial forces of musical hegemony, depending on how much you like the new material.
Because what we all really love Matthews for is his popular instinct, in the most original sense. Dave Matthews has redeemed and revitalized the acoustic guitar, rescuing it from the hands of righteous types with causes to push and power-pop ballads in need of authenticity. He has put it center-stage and allowed a kick-ass band to revolve around it. And for that, guitar-strumming college kids and their roommates will be forever grateful to him.