The opening show of the 1998 season at Washington state's Gorge Amphitheater, a 20,000-capacity shed perched on a precipice high above the Columbia river, was as much about the party as it was the music. Dave Matthews, himself on the first date of his latest tour leg, turned in a robust two-hour set that managed to touch on all of his previous recorded work while highlighting the group's recent chart-topper, Before These Crowded Streets. Matthews and his musically capable compatriots navigated their way through the lengthy set with aplomb -- and a hefty dose of Phish/Dead-like jamming. The crowd, not surprisingly, was howlingly appreciative.
Then again, Matthews could have played 120 minutes of Boston covers and the audience would have cheered. Almost exclusively college age and younger, many of the fans who came out to feast upon the pop culture phenomenon that is the DMB seemed pretty damn drunk. There were times when the up-front reserved section felt like the vortex of a Saturday night frat riot, minus the bonfires, rocks and bottle tossing. Crowd management was able to keep a lid on the highest spirits with some aggressive treatment -- mainly immediate, irreversible expulsion -- and the local police presence was heavy. A number of roads into the concert facilities were blocked, funneling fans into one of two grossly overloaded routes. More than a few missed opening act Taj Mahal and some of Matthews as well.
Inside the natural amphitheater, however, it was time to par-tay. Matthews and his crew deserve credit for putting on a genuinely stimulating show. Almost everyone -- chemically altered or not -- became rockingly involved in the singer/guitarist's engaging, highly personal vocal approach and his band's steady support. Starting with the jumpy new "Rapunzel," gliding through old favorites "Two Step" and "Jimi Thing" and almost scatting the jazzed-up "Crush," Matthews handily worked with the capacity crowd. When he wasn't singing, he was carrying on tight, center-stage musical conversations with violinist Boyd Tinsley and saxophonist Leroi Moore. Bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford built a solid rhythmic cradle for the lead instruments, and the interplay throughout was tight and dynamic.
As with any Matthews concert, there were extensive stretches of noodling, which allowed both Matthews and his longtime collection of players plenty of room to stretch and the crowd to groove. Long leads built into raging crescendos, creating a cacophonic call-and-response between band and fans. Tinsley, his strings shredded from rapid to-and-fro bowing, was especially dramatic. But sometimes the dynamics, strong as they were, ran short of musical ideas. Two- and three-note riffs, played over and over, created a pleasant-enough dizzying effect, but the repetition ultimately bred as much chaff as substance. Matthews' new songs have become more adventurous, but the band, musically skilled as they are, could be taking a few more chances.
Then again, nuance would have been lost on this audience. The biggest crowd pleasers remained "Too Much" and "Crash On Me," and there were volumes of young women pressed up against the barricade literally swooning at Matthews' smiley-face countenance.Then again, it might have been the drinks.