Review: Did Dave Matthews play what fans wanted to hear? It’s a question worth asking.

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At 7:48 on Saturday night — 18 minutes later than the start time printed on the ticket but at least an hour earlier than when a headliner typically begins a set these days — the familiar-to-those-of-a-certain-age theme song from ’70s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” came over the loudspeakers at PNC Music Pavilion.

And as excited “Ohhhhhs” from the crowd swelled into a crescendo of “AHHHHHHHHHS!!,” out walked the man known to his faithful simply as Dave.

The 54-year-old frontman for Dave Matthews Band smiled as he soaked up the adoration, putting his hands on his hips, rubbing his balding head and waving as fans frothed, before retreating to the platform beneath Carter Beauford’s drum kit to retrieve one of his many guitars.

By the time he settled into his spot at the mic stand at the front and center of the stage, the anticipation was palpable.

As any self-respecting devotee of Dave’s knows, there is literally no way of knowing what the opening song of a DMB set will be — or what any song in a DMB set will be — simply because every setlist in every city is always going to be close to 100% different than it was the night before.

In this case, on the previous night, at Raleigh’s Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, Dave Matthews Band opened its first concert in 510 days with fan favorite “#41.”

Cut back to the present: Matthews stood at the mic soaking up the Charlotte cheers, held his arms outstretched low at his sides, and threw his head back and his mouth open, looking vaguely like a gladiator who’d just asked whether those watching him were not entertained. (“Are you not entertained?? Are you not entertained?!!”)

“It is very nice to see y’all,” were the first words he uttered to the sold-out crowd of nearly 20,000. Then he started plucking the opening riff of — wait for it — “Seek Up,” and the outdoor amphitheater erupted.

Dave Matthews performs to a sea of fans at PNC Music Pavilion.
Dave Matthews performs to a sea of fans at PNC Music Pavilion.

Though the song is one that more-casual DMB fans have zero familiarity with, die-hards could instantly recognize it as an iconic opener; “Seek Up,” with its slow build and horn-heavy jazz sound, is well-known as the opening cut on the band’s legendary “Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95” album.

And it was a song that Matthews, guitarist Tim Reynolds, drummer Beauford, bassist Stefan Lessard, trumpeter Rashawn Ross, saxophonist Jeff Coffin and keyboardist Buddy Strong leaned into, hard.

Seven minutes long in its original studio-recorded form and 13-1/2 minutes long on the Red Rocks album, here in Charlotte “Seek Up’s” running time clocked in at 16 minutes and 52 seconds of free-flowing, effervescent fun — although it did go for so long that one had to wonder if the band was going to leave time for any other songs.

They did, of course. Plenty.

In total, Dave Matthews Band spent close to three hours on stage in its second live-and-in-person show since the start of the pandemic, a show that saw its leader dot the breaks between songs with the occasional musing about said pandemic as well as offering up two songs that might not even exist if not for COVID-19.

The first of those came seven songs in, sandwiched between the early-years-hit “Too Much” and the more-modern-era “You and Me.”

“While we’ve been apart from y’all and each other, we took the time to get together in small groups,” Matthews explained. “A friend of mine started writing a song and the friend of mine said, ‘You’ve got to go get with Carter and you’ve gotta get Carter to play on this and let’s turn this into a song.’ And then once we got together then we couldn’t stop, and then me and Fonz (Lessard) got together and then Lashawn and Jeff got together ... nasal swab ... Tim Reynolds came, nasal swab ... anyway so then we played this mother------.”

Drummer and backing vocalist Carter Beauford at Saturday night’s concert.
Drummer and backing vocalist Carter Beauford at Saturday night’s concert.

The song, “Walk Around the Moon” (which Matthews said was actually “about taking a walk in the woods — and we had lots of time to do that in the last year”), is so new that the internets don’t even have lyrics posted for it yet. They debuted the tune in Raleigh.

The second of those COVID-era songs is one that he’s been playing during virtual shows since the early days of the pandemic, but that got its live debut in Raleigh: The melancholy acoustic ode “Singing From the Windows,” which on this occasion he sang to open a three-song encore — by himself, just him and his guitar, the other band members still waiting in the wings to return.

“I was in Seattle with my family when this whole crazy thing that shut every thing down started over there in Seattle, and — it wasn’t my fault,” Matthews quipped. “But I remember we were all still kinda, ‘Ehhhhhh, I don’t knowww.’ But Seattle got a little scary early on, and then I remember reading in the newspaper about ... people that were locked in their houses and their apartment buildings over in Italy, and how one of the ways that they dealt with it was by opening up all their windows and singing out of their windows to each other. I’m gonna try to sing this song that was a little bit inspired by that.”

“Walk Around the Moon” and “Singing From the Windows,” incidentally, were the only two songs that DMB played in both Raleigh and Charlotte.

Which brings me to a point worth making about Dave Matthews Band shows. I already mentioned that every setlist the band plays in every city is always going to be close to 100% different than it was the night before, and I already mentioned that every self-respecting devotee of Dave’s knows that.

I think it’s also worth mentioning, though, that not everyone who’s interested in seeing Dave Matthews Band perform live is going to love that anything-goes approach to designing a setlist.

Most major concert tours, unlike DMB’s, are designed to take the same setlist — with maybe one or two tweaks from night to night — to every city it stops in. That’s mainly because it’s just easier, logistically, when it comes to everything from rehearsing the execution of the songs to planning out light shows and other background visuals.

But the other reason most artists feel it’s good to have a plan is because you want to be sure you don’t accidentally omit your biggest hits.

And for better or worse, Dave seemingly couldn’t care less about doing that.

Dave Matthews of The Dave Matthews Band performs at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion on Saturday night.
Dave Matthews of The Dave Matthews Band performs at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion on Saturday night.

One of these days, someone ought to stop every single person as they’re walking into a Dave Matthews Band concert and ask each of them the same question: “What songs do you most hope get played tonight?”

Naturally, there’d be a wide range of responses. But some themes would undoubtedly emerge, too. I can’t imagine a scenario in which there wouldn’t be a fair amount of answers along the lines of “What Would You Say,” or “Crash Into Me,” or “The Space Between,” or “Ants Marching,” or any number of other ’90s or ’00s DMB hits that would transport that particular concertgoer back to a particular, easier, more-carefree time or moment in their life.

(Then again, “hits” is a squishy word with DMB. There are the radio hits — i.e. “Satellite,” “Where Are You Going,” etc. — and then there are what I’d call cult hits — songs that Matthews has popularized over the years via his live shows, like, for example, “Jimi Thing,” “Tripping Billies,” “Two Step” and “Warehouse.”)

Purists, of course, will argue that this is a stupid discussion.

That, at this point, if you’re going to a Dave Matthews concert, you know the best way to appreciate a Dave Matthews concert is to be fully proficient when it comes to his entire oeuvre.

That what you’ve bought is a ticket to a night full of surprises, that you should be grateful for each surprise, and that you should be able to sing along with every word thanks to your full proficiency.

My argument is slightly different. I mean, I like surprises. While I think being able to call up a setlist on Setlist.fm can be helpful for knowing when to get another drink or go to the restroom, it can also take all of the suspense and a little bit of the sense of fun out of the evening.

Dave Matthews of The Dave Matthews Band performs at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion on Saturday night.
Dave Matthews of The Dave Matthews Band performs at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion on Saturday night.

I also have immense respect for the talent it takes a band like Dave’s to possess to have the ability to remember how to play hundreds of songs, where most band’s just have to remember 16 to 20.

But to me, there also has to be a payoff.

I’ll grant them their indulgences, like the nearly eight-minute version of 2002’s “You Never Know,” a soul-searching meditation on death complete with Coffin noodling on his alto sax till he turns red in the face, played about a third of the way into the show; or the dreamily jazzy, mellowed-out 11-minute rendition of 2009’s “Lying in the Hands of God,” inserted around the midpoint.

I just want to rest assured that at some point, I’m going to get “Ants Marching.”

“Shake Me Like a Monkey” could be a lively, juicy number in the middle of a set, but for me it’s not a closer, as it was in Charlotte. If I’m going to stay at my seat till the end, I’d like to leave with “Crash Into Me” ringing in my ears as I steel myself to face the parking-lot traffic jam.

I hope it’s not just me. I hope what I’m saying resonates with at least a few of you.

For the rest of you, look, I say what I said with mixed feelings. If he played the same exact set every night, I’d no doubt be screaming for him to change things up.

So it’s not that I’m ungrateful. In fact, after such a long time away from live music, I’m thankful for the opportunity to attend any concert right now, and to have the opportunity to share my opinions about one at all.

And although I may not fully agree with how Dave Matthews designs his setlists, I do absolutely agree with something else he said on Saturday night, to the sold-out crowd, right before he introduced “Singing From the Windows”:

“I hope that this isn’t just temporary,” Dave said as he clutched tightly to his guitar, “and hope that we can find our way out of this thing — and we can hang out like this more often.”

Dave Matthews Band’s setlist

1. “Seek Up”

2. “When the World Ends”

3. “Satellite”

4. “Sweet Up and Down”

5. “So Much to Say”

6. “Too Much”

7. “Walk Around the Moon”

8. “You and Me”

9. “You Never Know”

10. “Where Are You Going”

11. “Squirm”

12. “Funny the Way It Is”

13. “Lying in the Hands of God”

14. “Raven”

15. “If Only”

16. “Seven”

17. “The Space Between”

18. “Rooftop”

19. “Tripping Billies”

Encore:

20. “Singing From the Windows”

21. “Don’t Drink the Water”

22. “Shake Me Like a Monkey”

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