Concert Review: Dave Matthews Band Teaches Crash Course in Chops at Tour Finale

The jam master's epic-length Hollywood Bowl show included new songs about fatherhood, Prince covers and a bonus mini-orchestra.

Dave Matthews Band
Courtesy of Jeff Golden

Team Lady Bird, all the way.

That’s one appropriate thumbnail reaction to the Dave Matthews Band’s tour-ending show Monday at the Hollywood Bowl, which included a mid-set rendition of “Crash Into Me,” as revived last year in a certain Oscar-robbed teen comedy-drama. As “Lady Bird” viewers may recall, one of the film’s key moment of empowerment for its heroine comes when she stands up to a carful of her cooler friends and declares that the group’s mid-‘90s smash is a great song after all, jumping out of the car rather than finish the ride with snobs. Rock critics with a public fondness for the DMB may have been able to relate.

It was fun to imagine Saoirse Ronan’s character getting over her own pro-New York snobbery, coming back to California and, as a now 34-year-old, joining a lot of her contemporaries at the Bowl (and maybe, like a significant number of them, indulging in a bowl before or during the show). She would have seen a band that’s been through a lot of its own changes in recent years — losing key members in unfortunate circumstances, adding others for the joy of it, and refocusing some of the lyrics in the direction of literal dad-rock — but still driven by a sense of female veneration in the themes and sophisticated physicality in the playing.

And still playing “Crash Into Me,” although that’s by no means a given (setlist stats show that they were playing the tune for only the 14thtime out of 50 dates this year). There’s no such thing as a given at a DMB show, although “Ants Marching” almost counts as a reliable. No two shows remotely resemble one another, and so, of the 21 songs performed over the course of two hours and 45 minutes Monday at the Bowl, only eight were holdovers from the group’s performance two nights earlier at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. And the minority of tunes that did repeat appeared in completely different places in the running order. When you’re placing songs in the middle of a show that served as climactic encores a couple of nights earlier, that’s a pretty good sign of repertoire health, and not entirely capriciousness. (It’s also a pretty good way of drawing at least a small contingent of repeat-customer road-trippers, post-Deadhead era.)

If the scrambler approach to setlists very much carries over from the DMB’s early days, hardly everything has stayed the same. Two out of five original members are gone, significant for a group whose every member is loved or scrutinized by fans as much as players in the E Street Band. This month marks the 10thanniversary of the death of sax player Leroi Moore, and violinist Boyd Tinsley, who was already on leave to deal with personal issues, officially got the boot this year after allegations of sexual improprieties emerged. Those were the two players who made the signature sound most unique, although Matthews’ own emphasis on acoustic over electric guitar was also a key ingredient in the eclecticism. No fill-in fiddler has emerged since Tinsley’s exit, and the last decade has found Moore replaced by an entire horn section, with somewhat less emphasis on lead sax riffs and solos. Not being tied to these distinguishing characteristics has probably been freeing in some ways for Matthews — you don’t see him needing to make solo albums anymore — but it does risk making the band’s sound turn more toward the conventional.

A longtime Matthews cohort, electric guitarist Tim Reynolds, joined the touring band full-time 10 years ago; he was the departed sax player’s real replacement, apparently. And for this tour, Matthews had added a new keyboard player, Buddy Strong, who seems to be an unofficial fill-in for the MIA violinist. At a number of points in Monday’s show, the jam element was represented when Reynolds and Strong got into call-and-response guitar-and-organ licks. Watching these two take over the show in electric dribs and drabs wasn’t the Matthews Band of yore, but it wasn’t a gift horse to look in the mouth, either.

Sunday’s show had some extra players — a lot of extra players — who were showing up only for the tour climax. The horn section grew to five for one stretch of songs, with the entire quintet trading off four-bar solos through a very extended version of “Jimi Thing” and plying some extra funk for a cover of Prince’s “Sexy MF.” The greater novelty was the introduction of a 10-plus string section for three songs, conducted by David Campbell, aka Beck’s dad, a familiar sight any rocker wants to pull strings at a big L.A. show. The mini-orchestra was added for “Here on Out” and “Come On Come On,” two comforting songs from the latest album that had strings on the record as well, plus the older “Squirm,” which used the strings to far tenser effect.

The more nervous songs, like that one and “Don’t Drink the Water,” were mostly from Matthews’ past. The group’s 2018 release, “Come Tomorrow,” is more about domestic bliss — even if Matthews can never resist adding intimations of mortality to the most jubilant songs. One of the best of the seven songs played from the album was the first encore, “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin),” one of his salutes to fatherhood, which had Matthews strapping on a rare (for him) electric guitar to provide a rhythmic undertow for Reynolds’ Edge-like lead. Another selection from the new album, the lovely and stripped-down “When I’m Weary,” was actually getting its tour premiere at this tour finale — maybe because the tiredness theme befit a band that’s been on tour for months?

But there weren’t too many signs of road fatigue by the time the encore found the band jolting through the odd rhythms of “Why I Am,” from the underrated “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” and a resurrection of their perennial cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” amended for this tour-closer to include a climactic bit of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Something about delivering a high-pitched howl of “And as we wind on down the road” must’ve appealed to a guy winding things down on the road.