Friday night marked the Dave Matthews Band’s 28th performance at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The group debuted there 20 years ago during the H.O.R.D.E tour, and only a handful of other venues have hosted them as many times since.
The Charlottesville, Virginia, ensemble clearly feels at home among SPAC’s tall pines.
Whether the nearly soldout audience, gathered for the first of two shows over the weekend, was fully aware of the anniversary is hard to say. But they were in a mood to celebrate, regardless.
It rained earlier in the evening, hard and ominous. But by showtime, it was still light outside the amphitheater and glimmers of sun shone through the trees.
Dave Matthews came onstage alone at 7:20 p.m., greeted with rapturous applause.
“You look beautiful. It’s always nice to spend the weekend up here,” he told the crowd.
The night had been billed as “A Very Special Evening With Dave Matthews Band,” with no opening acts and the promise of two career-spanning sets — one acoustic and one electric. Like the best of the perennial touring acts, the Dave Matthews Band likes to keep things fresh for fans through unpredictable setlists, which are obsessively chronicled on Dave Matthews Band Almanac, a fan website.
So it was greeted with more delight than surprise when Matthews, seated on a stool with an acoustic guitar, kicked off the night with an unanticipated, delicate cover of Procol Harum’s 1960s nugget “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
The rest of the band then joined him, greeted with equally loud applause. Although inattentive crowds have reportedly greeted the acoustic sets at other venues along the band’s summer tour, the SPAC audience (in the amphitheater at least) sang, swayed and clapped along throughout.
The frenzied, horn-fueled shuffle of “Two Step” kicked off the night’s celebratory feel. “Stolen Away on 55th & 3rd” was quieter and almost got swallowed up by fan chatter before trumpeter Rashawn Ross blew an evocative horn solo that drew cheers. The instantly recognizable strains of “What Would You Say” got fans back on their feet. And before a cover of Sixto Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man,” Matthews recounted the story of the obscure Detroit musician little known in the U.S. but idolized in Matthews’ native South Africa.
It may have been billed as an acoustic set, but there was no shortage of energy. Violinist Boyd Tinsley nearly dropped his bow because he played so violently on the rousing, poly-rhythmic “Tripping Billies.”
After the loose, anything-goes feel of the first set, the band returned after a 30-minute intermission. A black curtain lifted to reveal flashing lights, a video screen and a full-fledged Dave Matthews Band arena show, offering full-electric force, bombastic solos and massive crowd sing-alongs to fan favorites like “Don’t Drink the Water,” “American Baby,” “Belly Belly Nice” and “Lie in Our Graves” — capped by a blistering encore of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
It was exactly what the fans on the lawn and in the amphitheater had been waiting for. But surprisingly, it was also hard to beat the feeling that the acoustic set held the night’s most unexpected rewards.