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By Jeff Miers

News Pop Music Critic

DARIEN – “According to the weatherman, it might rain.”

This was Dave Matthews, addressing the crowd at Darien Lake PAC on Wednesday, and exercising a bit of irony. In fact, the Dave Matthews Band has played Darien Lake on seven of the last eight years. And every time the band showed up, guess what? It rained.

No worries, though. DMB fans are used to the rain. And in fact, it didn’t really get extremely wet until well into the band’s second set.

Spirits remained undampened, and the tenor of the time remained high. That’s because the DMB delivered the finest evening of music they’ve offered a Darien Lake crowd in at least five years.

Every band that stares its 20th anniversary in the face has to deal with the dreaded questions: Are we bored? Are we merely going through the motions? Are we simply doing this for the money?

The DMB responded to this existential crisis by crafting a tour that would divide the evening’s performance into two sets – the first acoustic, the second, the full-on big bang DMB fans have come to expect.

On Wednesday, the pacing worked incredibly well. Set one reminded us that it’s really Matthews the songwriter we gather to celebrate when we come to the shows. Rare is the songwriter who is able to marry deeply Romantic sentiments to such sensual music in such a convincing manner.

And set two offered a dazzling display of just what that songwriter’s compatriots – guitarist Tim Matthews, bassist Stefan Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford, violinist Boyd Tinsley, saxophonist Jeff Coffin and trumpeter Rashawn Ross – can do with those songs.

The Matthews Band has always been considered a jam band, but in fact, that seems to be an arbitrary tag thrust upon the group by folks seeking to classify them and, more often than not, dismiss them as “stoner music.” The DMB is more accurately a group that takes Matthews’ songs and expounds upon their possibilities. Sometimes, this results in transcendent expositions on the harmonic and emotional material. Sometimes, not so much.

Happily, Wednesay’s show found the band turning inward, finding a common language, and then building the music toward repeated emotional and musical climaxes. It was a killer DMB show, from soup to nuts.

The opening acoustic set laid down the evening’s template, as Matthews and guitarist Reynolds emerged with acoustic guitars and played an arena-worthy version of “Dancing Nancies.” Reynolds offered some fiery single-line commentary in response to Matthews phrasing, and the crowd started to get into the groove. “Recently” followed, and by the time the tune reached its chorus, most of the Darien Lake crowd was singing along, feverishly. And so it went, as one by one, each of the band’s members emerged to add their particular voice to the mix. The full band tore up an only slightly mellow “Two Step,” and then we were off, through a world music-infused “Minarets,” a gorgeous “Stolen Away on 55th and 3rd,” replete with a beautiful flugel horn solo from Ross, and a ripping “Tripping Billies”.

Nice. But nothing compared to a reading of one of Matthews finest compositions, “Satellite,” which brought to mind the groundbreaking marriage of prog-rock and world music that Peter Gabriel perfected. This was simply sublime.

Set two ramped things up appropriately, and the crowd – a full amphitheatre with a mostly full lawn, despite the weather – responded in kind.

This was DMB in full jam-band mode, but where in the past, these jams could run out of steam quickly – often turning into one-chord jams where the listener was left wondering when someone on stage might take the bull by the horns and lead the music somewhere, anywhere – these improvisation sections were stately, interesting, and purposeful. Having a great jazz player like Coffin on the stage seems to have urged the others to bring their A games.

A vibrant “Water Into Wine” turned into a crowd sing-along, replete with smoking improvisations from Reynolds and Coffin; “When the World Ends” came across as what it was – a paean to the songwriter’s biggest loves, be they a spouse or a child; and “Save Me” turned into pure hippie gospel, with the help of three African-American backing vocalists, who tried to take the tune to church, and succeeded.

As far as DMB at Darien shows go, this was one of the absolute finest I’ve had the pleasure to witness.

jmiers@buffnews.com