SARATOGA SPRINGS Posing for a quick picture at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s front gate, Jessica Arnold wore a colorful sash that stood testament to her love of the Dave Matthews Band.
Her first show was at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington, more than a decade ago. And since that time, she’s watched 98 others.
On Friday, the 33-year-old Chicago woman was poised to break the 100 mark. Close friend Aria Stewart — someone Arnold met while camping at her first show — picked up the red sash with the number “100” and the two rented a limo to deliver them to the venue in style.
“It’s very surreal,” a beaming Arnold said just minutes before the performers were scheduled to take the stage. “It’s still the same excitement as my first show.”
Her sentiment was echoed by many veteran fans before Dave Matthews took the stage for the first of two shows this weekend. Those who follow him religiously find themselves drawn to his SPAC performances because the singer’s affinity for the venue shines through in his performances.
“The shows here are unique,” said Marvin Kim of New York City, a fan who was attending his 12th Dave Matthews performance at SPAC. “There’s something special about it.”
Ray LaChance agreed. Now attending his fourth show at SPAC — his 31st Dave Matthews’ concert — he makes it a point to come to the band’s performances in Saratoga Springs.
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“I always look forward to it,” he said. “It’s like my summer vacation.”
As in previous years, Saratoga Spa State Park swarmed with concert-goers before the show, but a wave of heavy thunderstorms muted some of the pre-show revelry that has long characterized Dave Matthews’ performances at SPAC.
Many scrambled for pavilions around the park as the sky opened up. Some defiantly tended grills tucked beneath vehicle hatchbacks or pop-up tents, flipping burgers as if it were a sunny day.
The intermittent rain didn’t seem to bother anyone, though, especially those who attended Dave Matthews’ first performance last year. Friday’s downpours seemed like nothing compared to the driving rain and 40-something-degree temperatures that characterized his act in 2013.
“It’s way better than last year still,” LaChance said.
Billy Harrigan of Ballston Spa was in the Geyser Brook area of the park with a small group of friends when the rain came. The group was riding out the storm by one of the mineral springs when several others from a nearby pavilion offered to share their shelter and a couple rounds of beer pong.
“It’s just a great party atmosphere,” he said. “We didn’t even know these people until 10 minutes ago.”
For the group, the Dave Matthews’ performance denotes the start of summer. Since 1994, Dave Matthews has performed 28 shows in the park, including a stretch of 10 consecutive years that ended in 2011 when the band took a year off from touring.
“It’s almost a kickoff part for the summer,” said Jarad VanLiew of Saratoga Lake. “This is what it’s all about.”
There’s also an element of timelessness to Dave Matthews’ music that seemed apparent by the blend of seasoned fans and a younger crowd that continues to gravitate toward his music. Many of the younger fans gathered around Peerless Pool under the close watch of state Park Police.
Kyle Marr of Clifton Park, a Shenendehowa senior, brought a pair of younger classmates to the park to experience their first show. While he gathered with classmates at Peerless, his parents wandered elsewhere in the park — waiting to enter the show.
“They love it, and I love it,” he said of the music. “Dave Matthews is just playing through the generations.”
The concerts, however, have mellowed significantly since the days when Park Police turned a blind eye toward drinking. Prior to 2010, little was done to enforce the state’s open container law, and binge drinking was more a norm than an oddity.
Then came the crackdown. Park Police announced a zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol four years ago and aggressively enforced it during the show, much to the dismay of fans.
Park Police had a visible presence Friday. Though their enforcement has loosened some, many veteran fans noticed a much mellower pre-concert atmosphere than in years prior to the crackdown.
“It used to be crazy here,” said Matt Savarese, a Long Island resident who attended his first SPAC show in 2008.
Of course, the dialed-down partying hasn’t diminished the quality of Dave Matthews’ performances, Savarese continued. And that becomes clear when he takes the stage.
“He likes coming here,” he said. “You can tell.”