Dallas "Then why in the world would I sing," crooned Dave Matthews, "if I had it all?"
Although it was written a decade ago, the lyric from If I Had It All, which came early in the two-and-a-half hour set at Gexa Energy Pavilion Saturday night, precisely illustrates the Dave Matthews Band's predicament circa 2012. Back on the road after taking 2011 off (a reward for two straight decades of relentless touring), the band returned to Dallas, with a nearly full house to greet them. But rather than exuberance, the prevailing mood was aggressively somber (die-hard Dave-heads would probably argue mellow).
The set list, peppered with tracks from the forthcoming, as-yet-untitled re-teaming with producer Steve Lillywhite, scarcely featured anything from before the turn of the century. Instead, the newer, more radio-friendly DMB was on display, which led to long periods of dullness. The deliberate, almost sluggish pace sucked the air out of the room, placing the handful of truly electric moments in sharp relief.
As always, the musicians on stage were in top form -- Matthews, violinist Boyd Tinsley, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford (whose monstrous solo during Two Step was show-stopping), along with permanent guest players Tim Reynolds and Rashawn Ross -- and when the group locked into an improvisational groove, the feeling was transporting. And fleeting -- much of the material was of a decidedly downcast nature, with simmering tracks like Out of My Hands or Squirm failing to capture the crowd's imagination.
In fairness, Saturday's show was only the tour's second performance, so it's possible DMB is slowly getting its live legs back. But, at the same time, too much of the night felt complacent, almost perfunctory. The vintage material -- Dancing Nancies, Jimi Thing or show closer Two Step -- sparkled with a vibrancy the more recent tunes uniformly lack. Given that Matthews simply let the audience sing nearly all of Jimi Thing suggests the band might just be sick of singing its classics, but with such a deep back catalog, injecting some fresh (old) blood into the set lists isn't impossible.
Which brings us back to "having it all." By most measures, DMB remains one of rock music's most consistently successful acts, reliably in the top 10 grossing, touring bands in the country. They've achieved great wealth, cultivated a fanatically loyal fan base (folks who don't blink at paying $70 for a DMB throw or $45 for a bottle of Dreaming Tree wine) and built a reputation as a must-see live act. But if DMB doesn't always seem to be having as much fun as the audience, what, exactly, is driving them?
It's a question worth mulling over as Matthews and his bandmates embark on their third decade, before they become so comfortable as to be boring.