Saratoga Springs loves Dave Matthews, and Dave Matthews clearly loves Saratoga Springs, where he kicked off a two-show run at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Friday night.
The South African-born singer-songwriter was spotted eating dinner at Mama Mia’s Italian restaurant off Route 50 in Saratoga on Thursday evening, and he mentioned several times at SPAC just how much he likes the city and venue — where he has performed 35 times in the past 23 years.
“Thank you very much, you always make me feel good here,” he told the adoring crowd after launching his three-hour acoustic show with a trio of crowd pleasers from over a decade past: The Dave Matthews Band songs “The Stone,” “Old Dirt Hill (Bring that Beat Back),” and “Granny,” the latter punctuated by shouts of “baby” from the crowd when he hit that oft-repeated word in the lyrics.
Although the lawn was a little less packed than a typical full-band Dave Matthews show, perhaps a result of the day’s rainy and unseasonably cool weather, the fans were no less devoted. The rain had ended by the time Matthews — accompanied by his longtime guitarist Tim Reynolds — appeared onstage seated on a stool, bathed in golden light.
The sparse set looked like a living room, with Matthews’ and Reynolds’ stools perched on an oriental rug. The acoustic format is a familiar one for Matthews — he typically plays the annual benefit concerts for Farm Aid (of which he is a founder) acoustically, and he often offsets his more boisterous Dave Matthews Band performances with stripped–down sets.
It’s a format that suits him well — his deeply nostalgic songs connect more personally with the audience, his anthemic choruses carry an arena’s worth of energy, and Reynolds steals a good part of the show as a stunning guitarist who can coax all kinds of crazy sounds out of his acoustic guitar by shifting tempos, manipulating the strings, and occasionally using effects pedals.
Keeping a party-minded drinking crowd entertained with just two guys and two acoustic guitars is not easy, but they pulled it off by offering up strings of hits (including crowd faves “One Sweet World,” “Lie in Our Graves,” “Funny the Way It Is,” “So Damn Lucky”) and a few choice covers (Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Woody Guthrie’s “Worried Man Blues,” Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”) during the 28-song set.
Reynolds — who played a solo show at Saratoga’s Putnam Den earlier in the year to showcase his latest solo album — took his turn alone in the spotlight at several points, most impressively during a guitar improv that fused Jimi Hendrix with a killer take on the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
“I wrote that song floating around on the water on a boat near here,” Matthews said after one of his biggest radio hits, “You and Me,” and right before announcing that a couple in front of the stage had just gotten engaged. Although Matthews’ songs can veer toward the overly sentimental, Reynolds’ presence gave the show the edge that it needed, and Matthews never failed to deliver, sending the crowd into the night just before 11 p.m. buzzing from crowd favorites like “Satellite,” “Crash into Me,” and show-closer “Grey Street.”