It seems like it's been some time, relatively speaking, since Dave Matthews performed in St. Louis. If you count his appearance at the locally hosted Farm Aid, Matthews made three stops here in 2009-10, all at the same venue, no less: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

Last year, Matthews and his band took a break from extensive touring, depriving fans of their accustomed Dave Matthews Band fix. But the faithful turned out in force for Matthews' return Wednesday night, once again at Verizon, and they were rewarded with a two-and-a-half-hour set that may have topped all of the group's recent concerts here.

Unfettered by a recent release to plug — though a new album, titled "Away from the World," is due in September — Matthews was free to pick and choose material from his entire catalog. True, about a fourth of the set list comprised songs from his most recent studio album, 2009's "Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King," but an equal number came from the band’s 1994 major-label debut, "Under the Table and Dreaming."

Matthews & Co. are experts at the art of the slow burn: Songs often start softly, with just Matthews' own acoustic guitar and voice, and maybe a simple figure played by violinist Boyd Tinsley, bassist Stefan Lessard or lead guitarist Tim Reynolds. Eventually, drummer Carter Beauford and the horn section join in with rising intensity, and before you're aware of it, the band is in full roar.

That's the approach taken on the opening tune, "Don’t Drink the Water," as well as on "Lying in the Hands of God," "So Damn Lucky," and several other numbers. You could argue that Matthews relies on that particular technique too often, but the shift is usually so subtle and natural that it's hard to complain.

Elsewhere, the group fired things up at the outset on "Eh Hee," the fun, funky "Spaceman" and the horn-driven "Shake Me Like a Monkey." Band members were given plenty of room to show off their instrumental prowess, particularly Tinsley, who soloed extensively on "Crush" and the St. Louis-reared Reynolds, who did so on "Jimi Thing," which segued into a snippet of Prince's salacious "Sexy M.F."

"Mercy" provided a brief glimpse into the forthcoming album. It was hushed, moody meditation on which Matthews played piano.

The ebullient set closer, "Ants Marching," and a hard-rocking encore of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" brought the night to a satisfying conclusion. Earlier, Matthews had noted that it was "a lovely evening in the great outdoors," which it was, thanks to welcome cool breezes, and DMB, which knew just when to crank up the heat and when to pull back.

Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile offered a brief but winning opening set that included the driving "Raise Hell," a duet with Matthews on John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," and a completely out-of-left-field take on Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."


Dave Matthews Band set list

Don't Drink the Water

Proudest Monkey

Satellite

Eh Hee

Shake Me Like a Monkey

Lying in the Hands of God

Spaceman

The Song That Jane Likes

Crush

Mercy

So Damn Lucky/Digging a Ditch (snippet)

You and Me

Jimi Thing/Sexy M.F. (snippet)

The Space Between

Typical Situation

Ants Marching

Encore

All Along the Watchtower