By Aly Semigran
April 15, 2009 at 06:42 PM EDT

“Who starts a tour at Madison Square Garden?” That was the question Dave Matthews posed before a sold-out crowd at that very arena last night. And the guy has a point; expectations for MSG shows are typically pretty high amongst fans, and they’re usually met by an unpredictable set list (check) and a surprise guest (check). If last night’s show, which kicked off a tour that runs into early October to promote the band’s new album Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, is an indication of things to come, it’s going to be a fun summer.

Full disclosure: I’m biased. I’m nothing short of a DMB fanatic (no, I do not play beer pong, and no, I do not possess a hackey sack.) So, hopefully for fellow fans who couldn’t make last night’s show, I can provide a little color commentary. And for haters, I can give you an opportunity to reach your daily quota of the word “sucks.” Read all about it after the jump.

The show opened with the Roots, who took a break from Jimmy Fallon to put on an impressive, earth-shatteringly loud set that closed with early-aughts mainstay “The Seed 2.0.” They paved the way for a very prompt DMB, who started the show with the go-to opener “Don’t Drink the Water.” Don’t get me wrong, I love “DDTW,” but since I’m on a public forum, I’m just going to go ahead and put out a plea to Dave and the gang for “The Stone” to open some set this summer. That is all. Carry on.

But, if “DDTW” felt predictable, the rest of the evening certainly wasn’t. “Cornbread” (which, sadly enough, did not make the cut for Big Whiskey, but will hopefully stay on as a live perennial; plus, Dave did a funky little dance during it) and yesterday’s newly released single, “Funny the Way It Is,” followed. And in true DMB fashion, they pulled out a rarity from The Lilywhite Sessions and played “Raven.” Mind = blown.

The next few songs were a nice mix of new (hello, “Spaceman”) and classic (“Pig”), and when Dave announced they had a special guest, the stadium collectively held its breath. While I was half-expecting the Roots to come back and jam (which would have suited me just fine), Gregg Allman came aboard to play the Allman Brothers mainstay “Melissa.” DMB has covered the song before, but it certainly sounds a little sweeter when you’ve got an actual Allman tearing it up.

It wasn’t until a few songs later that Dave spoke about LeRoi Moore, one of the band’s founding members, who passed away this past August. This is the band’s first tour without him (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ Jeff Coffin has stepped in) and for fans, at least for me anyway, it’s an adjustment. Coffin is fantastic (his work on “You Might Die Trying” was sharp), but his aesthetic is 100% different from Roi’s. It just feels like there’s something inherently sad from here on out about the shows without him (the crowd responded with a heartfelt chant of LeRoi’s name, and it was apparent the band was touched.) So, when Dave told us that the song “Why I Am” was Roi’s favorite on the new album, I listened closely.

The band closed the set with a hat trick of fan favorites: “Ants Marching,” “#41,” and “Two Step.” If Dave and guitarist Tim Reynolds (who, along with Coffin and trumpet player Rashawn Ross, have become the band’s unofficial members) had stolen the show up to this point, Carter Beauford took it right out from under them with a jaw-dropping drum solo during “Two Step.” Even when it seemed like bassist Stefan Lessard might take off into his own solo, Carter upped the ante. You could tell the guy was just feeling it.

The encore sent us out with a nice juxtaposition of the lovely, quiet “Sister” into the rousing “Tripping Billies.” Overall, the whole set felt solid, and while the new songs will have to work out their kinks, it will be interesting to see just how different this new path feels for fans (keyboardist Butch Taylor opted not to tour with the band this summer, so the pacing has changed significantly for certain jams.)

Were you at the show last night too, Music Mixers?  How did you feel about the set list? Did Roi’s absence feel strong to you? Will you hit up any shows down the road?

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