GEORGE, Grant County — It was his party and even Dave Matthews looked like he didn’t believe what was happening.
A rejiggered Dave Matthews Band with a patchwork rhythm section was burning through a perfectly rowdy “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The jammy juggernauts’ three-night stand at the Gorge Amphitheatre was winding down Sunday, and Matthews was glowing as he and gospel queen/fountain of joy Mavis Staples, who performed earlier, flat-out belted The Rolling Stones’ classic with jubilant gusto.
It wasn’t so much an all-star duet as it was a three-part shout-along, with a large chunk of the 25,000 or so fans swarming the hillside joining the boisterous chorus. The wheels may have come off a little at the end, but who the hell cares, rock ‘n’ roll, right?
It was a highlight from an unforgettable weekend that almost didn’t happen.
As fans were arriving at the destination venue on Friday for the band’s annual Labor Day weekend run at the Gorge, a vague tweet announced that Dave Matthews Band would play in an “alternate format,” citing a coronavirus exposure within its camp. The wording caused a temporary cardiac episode on social media, as fans making the trek (and springing for travel expenses) to see the return of “Labor Dave weekend” wondered what exactly that meant.
Introducing Spokane soul man Allen Stone later that day, Matthews explained that DMB drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard had tested positive for COVID-19, despite being vaccinated. (The band required proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken within 48 hours for entry into the Gorge shows and planned to offer onsite testing in the campground.) Losing an entire rhythm section right before showtime would easily force most bands to cancel, but Matthews and the cast of musicians’ musicians he runs found a way to make it work.
The “alternate format” the nimble crew settled into found Matthews opening each night solo, before guitarist Tim Reynolds joined him for a few tunes, followed by a full-band portion with DMB keyboardist Buddy Strong sliding behind the drum kit and bassist Tony Hall, from Friday’s openers Dumpstaphunk, hanging around all weekend to fill in for Lessard. Keyboard tech Elijah Pigg sat in for Strong on a couple songs.
“I gotta tell you, I played it a hundred times back there — I’ve never tried to do it alone — so there’s a good chance you’re gonna see me [expletive] something up,” Matthews said Sunday before a one-man “You Never Know,” the tenderness in his voice contrasting with his forceful strumming.
The admission only made the applause louder from the Seattleite’s rabid fans, who were happy to roll with the weekend’s on-the-fly spirit. After a handful of solo tunes — including John Denver’s “Take Me To Tomorrow,” with Matthews twirling his delicate falsetto like a ribbon dancer — Reynolds joined him for a stormy “Minarets.” Minutes later, the guitar-wielding madmen matched the hypnotic intensity of “Minarets” with a stripped-down, but no less raucous, “Too Much,” Matthews howling the chorus like a desert dog with perfect pitch to close the Dave & Tim portion.
But even Matthews had to hand it to the weekend’s real heroes, Strong and Hall, who got their moments during DMB’s third act with the full band. (On social media, a recovering Lessard jokingly dubbed the “alternate format” ensemble “Dave Matthews and the Negatives,” because “sometimes positivity is a bad thing,” he quipped of his unfortunate test results.)
The versatile Strong anchored a driving rendition of “Pig,” guiding the song from patter to pound, and tossing in a lively fill or two into a thunderous crescendo.
Following that let-loose Stones cover, Hall — who played with Matthews’ Dave Matthews and Friends side project in the 2000s — assumed lead vocals for a spryly funky rendition of Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay,” which Reynolds boosted with one of his most colorful solos of the night. Next, openers Robert Randolph and the Family Band joined the party for an extended psych-funk romp through Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” with Randolph goading Matthews into matching vocal ad-libs with him. As if someone needed to keep the guy on his toes after a weekend like this.
Let’s hope for a healthier “Labor Dave weekend” in 2022. But after this year, we’d bet on DMB turning whatever cards they’re dealt into a winning hand.