Review: Dave Matthews Band holds jam session at Hollywood Bowl
For better or for worse, the Dave Matthews Band has been a blockbuster live act for so long it’s helped industrialize the lucrative jam-band scene that now congregates at festivals like Bonnaroo and Gathering of the Vibes.
But the Virginia-born band once lived on pop radio with 1996’s “So Much to Say,” for instance, or the deathless prom-night ballad from that same year, “Crash Into Me.”
Matthews himself pointed out what a long strange trip it’s been Wednesday evening at the Hollywood Bowl, where his group concluded yet another summer tour just one day after releasing its latest studio album, “Away From the World.”
“We had a lot of fun making this record,” the frontman said. “Even though making records is kind of a weird thing now.”
“Away From the World” reunites the Dave Matthews Band with Steve Lillywhite, the English producer who oversaw the group’s mid-’90s hits, and it contains plenty of echoes: In “Belly Belly Nice” Matthews rides a bright folk-funk groove à la “What Would You Say,” while “Mercy” channels the delicate insistence of “Crash Into Me.”
After 2009’s relatively aggressive “Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King,” for which the group teamed with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo, the new album feels light and approachable, nowhere more so than in the aptly titled “Sweet,” about a father’s experience teaching his son to swim.
At the Bowl, Matthews sang the first half of “Sweet” solo, accompanying himself on ukulele, before the other players joined in and nudged the music toward a kind of dorm-room reggae. He went similarly stripped-down for “The Space Between,” a wistful love song from 2001’s “Everyday.”
Yet in the rest of the three-hour show, the Dave Matthews Band — with guitarist Tim Reynolds, bassist Stefan Lessard, violinist Boyd Tinsley, drummer Carter Beauford, trumpeter Rashawn Ross and saxophonist Jeff Coffin — deemphasized the radio-readiness “Away From the World” recovers.
That meant lengthy instrumental improvisations, of course, the group’s specialty since it emerged nearly 20 years ago from the clubs and fraternity houses of Charlottesville.
It stretched out “Raven” with a guest solo by jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and, more impressively, appended a bit of Prince hard funk to “Jimi Thing.” During “Eh Hee” the giant video screens flanking the Bowl’s stage flashed a close-up of Beauford’s foot on his bass-drum pedal — a clear indication of the group’s workmanlike priorities, even before a chatty, boisterous audience peppered with stars including Ryan Seacrest and Colin Farrell.
Occasionally the musicians’ free-flowing technique pooled in a bit of welcome spectacle, as when they effected a manual fade-out at the end of the new album’s “If Only.” More often, though, the group’s energy seemed willfully diffuse, free of a center that might be mistaken for drive.
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