For most of the night, the Dave Matthews Band's Wednesday night performance on the Great Lawn in New York's Central Park was an oversized throwback to the uncomplicated DMB delirium of the late 1990s: a stadium-overflow audience of more than 85,000 people singing along in unison as if they were all packed into the old, long-gone Wetlands club; a set list of crowd favorites drawn almost entirely from the group's first three studio albums, when producer Steve Lillywhite was still in the chair; the leader saying little more than a whole lotta "Thank you," dressed like the ultimate Everyman in a gray shirt and nothing-special trousers, except that he was standing on the ultimate stage, "in the greatest park in the greatest city in the world," as he remarked at one point, in a happy growl.
Then, a little after 9 p.m., protean guitarist Warren Haynes -- Gov't Mule boss and half of the lead-guitar heaven in the current Allman Brothers Band -- walked on stage, bringing the heavy blues: a torrid version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," a rarely played DMB cover and surely never played by them like this. Haynes and Matthews sang alternating verses, each in his own death-rattle register, and Haynes tore up the crisp night air with long lines of fiery guitar, arcing screams of fear and bloodlust. Haynes also stuck around to spice up a long romp through "Jimi Thing," taking the DMB's jazz-funk jump way down South with an extended, chicken-cluck-R&B break, before Matthews suddenly led everyone into another surprise: a version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth, sung over the tandem drone of Boyd Tinsley's violin and Leroi Moore's saxophone.
The Young and Springfield covers, combined with Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," which ended the main set in thunderclaps of dread, underscored the apocalypse, alcoholic combat, drunken resignation and exhausted sadness in many of Matthews' own songs: "Don't Drink the Water," "Too Much," "When the World Ends," "Grey Street." For a guy who runs one of the biggest party bands in America, Matthews has a lot of darkness on his mind. But he made a point of not spreading it on too thick. Although he had released his debut solo album -- the dark, string-laden Some Devil -- the day before, Matthews did not play anything from it. And there was very little recent music: only two songs each from last year's Busted Stuff and the controversial Glen Ballard-produced Everyday.
Instead, Matthews took his band and the crowd back to the pre-supersales, pre-9/11 innocence of Under the Table and Dreaming, running through six of the album's eleven songs in the middle of the set (including "Ants Marching," "Dancing Nancies" and "Warehouse"). In between an extended "Two Step" (from Crash) -- which featured Carter Beauford and Stefan Lessard in high-stepping, bass-drums conversation -- and that mighty "Cortez," Matthews also pulled out "Help Myself," a number he first performed in New York back in 1994, at the Wetlands. And when it came time to turn out the lights and empty the park, Matthews sent everyone home with "Stay (Wasting Time)," a song about how the best way to hang tough is to hang together.
Central Park concerts -- at least in the post-Be In/Jefferson Starship era -- are not known for their comfort and intimacy. They are Events. And I still have nightmares about the weather and wilding at the Diana Ross debacle years ago. Security inspections at the main entrances to the Lawn, on the east and west sides of the park, meant long lines and waits. But there was no pushing, just patience. And although the concert was produced by AOL, there was surprisingly little hype in evidence: no annoying banners over the stage, no introductory remarks except for a couple of sentences from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The fans got good, clear sound, a three-hour show and plenty of hits, for a good cause: the event benefited music programs in New York City schools. In short, a fine night in the greatest park in the greatest city in the world.