On February 24th, 1995, not yet two years into his new gig hosting the Late Show, David Letterman gave an upstart Virginia group its first opportunity to perform in front of a national audience. Dave Matthews Band would go on to make 13 late-night appearances at the famed Ed Sullivan Theater, and the last of these was taped Thursday evening to air Friday night on CBS. Following the taping, the band stuck around to bring the "Legends on Letterman" concert series to a close with a hour-long set that was broadcast live on network's website. "It's awesome to be here and say goodbye to the great David Letterman," a bubbly Matthews told the crowd toward the beginning of the performance. "The first TV show we ever did was the Letterman show, so this is crazy."
Because the stream had to stick to schedule, there was little room for extended jams or improvisation, and the band played a tight, polished set of reliable favorites like "Digging a Ditch," "Grey Street" and "Don't Drink the Water." Matthews was animated throughout, joking with the audience during the brief song breaks. Violinist Boyd Tinsley and drummer Carter Beauford had smiles plastered across their faces the entire time. "It's a great pleasure to be up here with my band," Matthews said after striking the last chord of "Stay or Leave." "I like my band. . . . We're getting old."
Matthews also coyly teased that they might treat the audience — which had arrived early and formed a line stretching around the block — to some new music they've been working on. When a fan loudly suggested Beauford tell the frontman to go ahead and play one of those cuts, he obliged. The song, "Black and Bluebird," turned out to be a tender number full of vivid imagery — "Out on the sidewalk/the dandelion/is reaching from a crack up to the sun" — and gentle horn swells. The band brought it home with a delicate instrumental outro that beautifully complemented the whimsical lyrics.
Fans will have plenty of chances to hear "Black and Bluebird" (and hopefully some other new songs) in the coming months, as Dave Matthews Band will kick off a characteristically massive summer tour May 13th at the 360 Degree Auditorium in Austin, Texas.
But last night's performance at the Ed Sullivan Theater wasn't so much about warming up for the road as saying farewell to the man whose name has adorned the marquee on Broadway for the past 22 years. Letterman has always been a champion of artists that otherwise might not have been able to find a way onto national TV, and Dave Matthews Band is a prime example. The debt of gratitude they owe the Late Show's departing host is not lost on their frontman, even if, as Matthews told Rolling Stone earlier this week, he found Letterman "sarcastic and terrifying" when he first came across him as a teenager in the Eighties.
"I was visiting my friend and I found him kid of abrasive when I was a little kid," the singer explained. "But then it didn't take long for me to fall in love with him. You know, time flies — my beard is going gray."
Dave Matthew Band's "Legends on Letterman" set list:
"Stay or Leave"
"Belly Belly Nice"
"Don't Drink the Water"
"Digging a Ditch"
"You & Me"
"Black and Bluebird"