Review: Dave Matthews Band’s best setlist in years?

Closes with Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower' at SPAC
Dave Matthews performs with his band Friday night at SPAC.
Dave Matthews performs with his band Friday night at SPAC.

Categories: Entertainment

“Eat, drink and be merry / For tomorrow, we’ll die,” sang Dave Matthews on “Tripping Billies,” the second song of his performance at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Friday, the first of two nights. 

The tune, from the Dave Matthews Band’s 1996 debut album “Crash,” has the lilting rhythms, raging sing-along choruses and carpe diem sentiment that make Matthews so popular – his shows are celebratory events.

“It’s always so good to be here. I like the way it looks in here,” Matthews said at the start of the rousing performance. He’s never made a secret of his special love for Saratoga Springs – and fans around the region who pack the SPAC lawn and amphitheater for his shows every summer clearly love him back.

The singer and guitarist came out with his band at 8:30 p.m., dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, to an adoring reception. The opening song, “Squirm,” started out contemplative but crested into a galvanizing chorus – a Dave Matthews formula to go from quiet to intensely emphatic in nearly every song.

On record, his songs often don’t rise to the level of his performances, which get a rocket boost from the live ability of his stellar band (bassist Stefan Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford, trumpeter Rashawn Ross, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, guitarist Tim Reynolds and keyboardist Buddy Strong).

The Matthews trifecta – a brilliant band, uplifting songs and a charming frontman – was on full display at SPAC. It may have been one of his best setlists played here in recent years. Nearly every song during the two-hour show was a hit, from the swirling “Minarets” and slinky jazz of “Crush” to the heady nostalgia of “Do You Remember” and the instantly recognizable “Satellite.”

He’s starting to gray around the temples, but Matthews had no shortage of energy on “You Might Die Trying,” which he punctuated with a little dance, and “Joy Ride,” which fans peppered with “woos.” A mashup of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” that merged into the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” was silly – but fun.

Matthews’ social conscience came through on “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” and “Funny the Way It Is” while his romanticism had fans swooning on “Stay or Leave,” “You & Me,” “Where Are You Going,” “The Song that Jane Likes” and “Water into Wine.” 

A funkified “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” crowd singalong “Everyday” and the massive “Ants Marching” closed out the set. He returned for an encore of “Some Devil,” played by Matthews alone, before the full band came back for a sweeping cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

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