ATLANTIC CITY – The Dave Matthews Band played to what is expected to be the biggest crowd of the three-day DMB Caravan at Bader Field on Saturday night.
And they didn’t disappoint.
As the sun set and the temperatures dipped into the 70s, the crowd of nearly 30,000 people stretched from the main Boardwalk Stage to the Ferris wheel _ an area that is more than two football fields in length and nearly as wide.
Like Friday, DMB opened on a mellow note with the catchy “Big Eyed Fish” as Boyd Tinsley finger-plucked his fiddle and fans danced while marijuana smoke drifted through the sea air. In fact, Tinsley was the focus of the night – leaned on for more improvisational solos than anyone else - and when the spotlight is on Tinsley, it’s always a good night.
Tinsley stepped up for the night’s second song, “Bartender,” with an awesome solo, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin concluded the song showing his versatility, soloing on a piccolo.
Like Friday, Matthews brought up some guest artists that had played earlier in the day at the Caravan. But Saturday’s were far superior.
Vusi Mahlasela was the first to join the band for the night. The South African singer/songwriter added his native country’s musical influences by vocally improvising on “Everyday.” Although they’ve done this together before, it never gets old.
More impressive was Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes stepping in on #41, an awesome composition that never sounded better. Haynes took over the solo at the end of the song, jamming for nearly 10 minutes, concluding with a guitar duel with DMB fretman Tim Reynolds that was the highlight of the night.
DMB continued to unleash an array of songs from its latest album, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.” The results were mixed. “Why I Am” had the crowd dancing en masse. The contagious N’awlins-inspired “Alligator Pie” was fun, and “Time Bomb” showed Matthews’ intense side that may be the best track on the CD. The ballad “Spaceman” – not a great song to begin with – didn’t sound any better live.
Equally uneven, DMB dug deep for some rarely played tracks, including unreleased and live rarities such as the foot-tappin’ ballad “Write a Song,” “Break Free” and the not-so-stellar “The Idea of You” and “Black Jack.” The first song of his encore, “Sister,” was a tribute to late Bruce Springsteen saxophonist Clarence Clemons, but it belonged more in his acoustic set with Reynolds earlier in the day than it did at the end of the night.
But Matthews knows how to mix it up, always injecting enough hits, including “Crush” – another song that highlighted Tinsley that had the crowd singing so loud people at Borgata may have heard them. Other crowd faves included “Dancing Nancies,” the first-set closer “Stay” and the encore “Two Step,” featuring percussionist Leon Mobley, who performed earlier in the day with Damian Marley. While Mobley’s bongo work was appreciated as he went back and forth with DMB drummer Carter Beauford, he was outshined by Reynolds, who was ferocious on the frets in an extended solo.
There were a few mistakes by Matthews, messing up some lyrics early in the concert and then playing another song in the wrong key and starting over. No one seemed to mind.
For the record: the band has not repeated a single song yet, including the acoustic set.
Unlike Friday, when Matthews shocked the crowd by performing for barely two hours, he stretched his set to nearly three hours Saturday, playing 19 songs. Matthews’ energy was up, the setlist was better and DMB offered a little something for everyone.
Here are reviews of some other acts Saturday:
Vusi Mahlasela: Snoozer of the day
Vusi Mahlasela, from South Africa, captivated the people who gathered to hear his opening act at 1:45 p.m. Saturday at the Atlantic stage with just his voice - both powerful and angelic when necessary - his amplified acoustic guitar strumming and an accompanying electric guitarist.
Although Mahlasela possesses a great voice, he could have done more to make his show more entertaining for a festival crowd.
The Budos Band: Most overlooked
The Budos Band is exactly the type of band Matthews is hoping to expose his fans to during the Caravan.
Playing on the Pacific stage, the Staten Island, N.Y., instrumental group urged the small crowd to dance to the band's soulful mix of contemporary jazz, African beats courtesy of dual bongo players and funk. Many obliged.
A jam band with horns, the Budos Brothers thoroughly impressed, particularly bassist Daniel Foder, who played his instrument with a rock-star swagger and stood out despite the horns being the focus.
Punch Brothers: Surprise of the day
The award for most-impressive mandolin playing during the Caravan currently belongs to Chris Thile, the leader of the progressive bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers. His fingers flew across the fretboard of the small-necked instrument to the crowd's delight.
As dazzling as his mandolin playing was, Thile's voice wasn't too shabby, either, as he hit falsetto notes during his set.
The Punch Brothers mixed up their set with originals, old-time tunes such as "Brakesman's Blues" by Jimmie Rodgers and covers of more recognizable tunes, such as The White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
They closed their set on a high note with a spirited version of "Rye Whiskey," a song from their latest CD, which praises the virtues of liquor saying, it "makes the sun set faster."
Matthews and Reynolds: Acoustic set of the day
With the Atlantic City skyline behind them, Dave Matthews and guitarist Tim Reynolds gave more than 10,000 fans an afternoon delight. ... a teaser for what was to later happen when they headlined at the Caravan Saturday night.
The duo reunited for a rare acoustic performance and the crowd responded, growing by the hundreds with every song that passed.
Opening with the ballad, "Grace is Gone," they quickly changed gears with the more uptempo "Save Me," where Reynolds and Matthews made two acoustic guitars sound like a complete band.
Other standouts included the beautiful "Where Are You Going" and "Lie in Our Graves," the latter where Reynolds once again proved this weekend what a great guitarist he is. The finale, "So Damn Lucky," seemed a fitting end to describe both the duo and the fans.
The two talented musicians seemed to have fun playing songs they might not usually play with the Dave Matthews Band, such as the twangy "Old Dirt Hill," the ballad "Oh" and the emotional "Eh hee."
Matthews and Reynolds could have spared the crowd from an overlong, unimpressive instrumental that ate into the time they could have been playing another song fans would appreciate more.
Although they left the crowd wanting more, leaving promptly after their scheduled 45-minute set, Matthews and Reynolds offered a mellow set on a beautiful summer day that was one of the most memorable acts of the weekend so far.
Guster: Most upbeat band
The Boston alternative rock band Guster was a bright spot as the quartet proved more popular than From Good Homes - who also sounded great as they played at the same time on a different stage.
Guster had the crowd dancing from their first song, the uptempo tune titled "The Captain."
The band's harmonies added a great deal to their songs. Even for a ballad like "Satellite," fans had their hands in the air and were having a good time.
Damian Marley: Best Reggae
Damian Marley and his band threw down the gauntlet Saturday evening and challenged the reggae of Michael Franti and Spearhead, who perform today, for best reggae band of the Dave Matthews Caravan music festival.
Marley, the youngest son of late reggae legend Bob Marley, supplemented his songs by dipping into his father's catalog.
"Could You Be Loved" had the massive crowd gathered in front of the main stage movin' and groovin'. He also did "Exodus" and "War."
Marley had lighter tunes like "Hey Girl" and "Beautiful," which started off his set, but he really came to life when he spit fire on his more serious songs, such as "Dispear."
Warren Haynes: Guitar god
As one of the guitarists for the Allman Brothers and frontman of Gov't Mule, the man is busy.
His latest group - simply titled Warren Haynes - is a lot of fun.
With a sax player - Allman contributor Ron Holloway - an organ player and female backup singer, the six-piece band jams to a hodgepodge of rock, rhythm and blues.
Opening with the title track of his new album, "Man in Motion," the band served as the perfect setup for DMB, which immediately followed across Bader Field on the Boardwalk Stage.
With extended jams and an overall feel-good aura, Haynes and his new ensemble should stick around for a while. He may have found his voice.
O.A.R. gets criticized for being one of the more commercial groups on the jam-band circuit, but a little bit of pop smarts does have its advantages.
The Maryland quintet, which probably pulled the biggest crowd so far besides the Dave Matthews Band during the festival, uncorked a brand new song on its fans, "Heaven," which had people singing along to the chorus before it ended with the words, "I don't want to go to heaven if I can't get in."
O.A.R. was supplemented by a three-piece horn section. They are very energetic on stage anyway, but the horns added even more dynamics and brought the party to another level when they did their song "Lay Down," one of their better-known tunes. The saxophonist stepped out front and blasted out a solo during a song "Night Shift."
The band held onto its crowd pretty well through its next to last song, its best-known number "That Was A Crazy Game of Poker," which had fans shouting out lyrics in unison without prompting, like at a Phish show.
Other bands to watch today
Fitz and the Tantrums (2:45 p.m., Atlantic Stage); Amos Lee (3 p.m., Boardwalk Stage); Dr. Dog (4 p.m., Atlantic Stage); Grace Potter & the Nocturnals (4:40 p.m., Pacific Stage); David Gray (5 p.m., Boardwalk Stage); Michael Franti & Spearhead (6:05 p.m., Pacific Stage).
DMB Setlist - Day 2
Big Eyed Fish
Why I Am
Write a Song
Everyday (with Vusi Mahlasela)
The Idea of You
#41 (with Warren Haynes)
Two Step (with Leon Mobley)
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds' setlist:
Grace is Gone
Old Dirt Hill
Where are You Going?
Lie in Our Graves