Twin Cities fans couldn’t argue with the opening act picked for Wednesday night’s Dave Matthews Band concert at Xcel Energy Center: Dave Matthews landed the gig.
Last seen performing across the river to 25,000 fans at the short-lived River’s Edge Festival in 2012, the affable, laid-back Virginian rock groover played to an indoor crowd of more than 14,000 this time around — still an impressive number, considering a lot of Minnesota’s hippie flock was already on its way to the cabin or to Chicago for this weekend’s Grateful Dead farewell shows.
Matthews underscored his low-key persona by shouldering the warm-up duties on his latest summer outing and dubbing it the Two Sets Tour. As promised, the first of those two sets was an 80-minute acoustic montage.
With most of the crowd already on hand for the very un-hippie 7:20 p.m. start time, the unplugged portion started like a true acoustic songwriter affair. Matthews strutted out and strolled through solo covers of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and Neil Young’s “The Needle & the Damage Done,” then guitarist Tim Reynolds joined him for a similarly concise version of “Oh.” He’d make a mighty fine coffeehouse folkie, this Matthews guy.
By the fourth song “The Stone,” though, it became clear that “unplugged” doesn’t mean “stripped-down” or “unjammy” to Matthews, as most of his band members came onstage and stretched out musically. They kept going and going (and going and going) through lengthy versions of “When the World Ends,” “Typical Situation” and “Tripping Billies.”
Though elegant at times, the jamming mostly dragged along in the acoustic format, going up and down playfully yet flimsily like the musical version of an extra-long hacky sack match. “At some point we’re going to stop playing,” Matthews quipped an hour into it. But then they kept playing.
The games really began at the start of the electric set, with a marathon of an opening song, “Seek Up.” If the fans who smuggled in joints didn’t know it was time to light up, here was a 15-minute clue.
But the seven-man ensemble hit a steadier stride after that, balancing rockier and peppier tunes such as “Drive In, Drive Out,” “Squirm” and an especially jittery “So Much to Say” with a batch of slower-building gems that showed them at their best. Those warmer, mellower, snuggle-up-to-your-honey tunes such as “Proudest Monkey” and “Satellite” would have floated through the air beautifully in an outdoor venue on the first night of July in Minnesota instead of stifled inside a sports arena, but at least they were blessed by the X’s mighty fine acoustics.
Wednesday’s show certainly had an athletic aspect to it befitting the arena, too. Matthews stood up to the ardor of a nearly 3 ½-hour performance like a total pro, still in strong voice and able to do his little wiggly leg dance moves as the show blazed on through “Anyone Seen the Bridge” and “You Might Die Trying.”
His bandmates displayed great stamina, too, not only in keeping up Wednesday’s pace but in pushing their virtuosic super-musician boundaries all these (24) years, be it Boyd Tinsley’s moody-to-manic violin solo in “Lie in Our Graves,” Reynolds’ soulful guitar break in “Proudest Monkey” or the collective moody power in the newer staple “Black and Blue Bird.”
Eventually, they did stop playing, though.
See DMB’s set list at startribune.com/artcetera