First Niagara Pavilion, Burgettstown, Pennsylvania – June 28, 2014
2014 marks my twentieth year as a fan of The Dave Matthews Band, and almost every year of that twenty, I’ve had the good fortune to see the band live at least once. DMB has, in that time, assumed the mantle of a true successor to The Grateful Dead as the sort of critically marginalized but super-successful live draw that inspires a peculiar strain of fanatical devotion from a surprising cross section of (not necessarily but often) young people. They follow the band around the country, reveling in the live experience like no other fan base I know, collecting live recordings both in person and secondhand, memorizing absolutely everything and obsessing over minutiae with their fellow afflicted. Comparatively, my own affliction is mild. I find myself conversely amused and bemused by the behavior I witness at shows, though I consider myself an unabashed DMB fan nonetheless. Under the Table and Dreaming seemed to boost the oxygen level in the very air I breathed, and to this day it is one of my favorite albums ever, but, as a fan, I admittedly stand somewhat apart.*
*Reviewing my personal DMB discography, I see that, in addition to the ten studio albums (and an EP, and a lovely album comprised of scrapped recordings), I own five live albums, which might seem completist for other bands until one takes into account the 16 I saw for sale on amazon. This doesn’t even include the popular “Live Trax” series, which currently stands at 30 volumes (and counting). I told you. These are not normal people.
I can report from years on the beat that the DMB “live experience” is a truism in both respects. It is an experience, without fail, and for a band so often given over to languid composition on album, and all too often a slave to self-indulgence, DMB can be absolutely galvanizing and ferocious on stage. I’ve seen them routinely squash what momentum they’ve built up with a laissez faire attitude, and of course I’ve witnessed them noodle to a detrimental degree, but I have also seen them deliver brilliant and transcendent wall-to-wall 150-minute shows that were worth every ounce of ear-rattling applause they received and more. I saw such a show just last summer in the cornfields adjacent to Indianapolis, and the summer before that on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. I saw such a show in July of 1995, at the World’s Fair Park in Knoxville, TN, and it, as much as any concert I’ve ever attended, changed my life. A month shy of twenty years to that day, I sought to extend my DMB live hitting streak by returning to the Pittsburgh area. In my experience, the odds are that a DMB show will, at a minimum, end up being a fun, solid night, and, at best, a joyful and unforgettable mile marker along the road of your musical life. That this show, for me, was not an unqualified success can be blamed largely on circumstantial elements, and, I think, bears a bit of further analysis.
MUSICOLOGY (Grade: B+)
This 2014 summer tour is billed as “A Very Special Evening with The Dave Matthews Band”, and contains for the first time in the band’s history a dedicated acoustic set in addition to the normal electric. DMB has favored acoustic guitars almost exclusively throughout its history, but has in recent tours increasingly integrated the electric guitar of ace guest star Tim Reynolds to the point where he is now the band’s de facto seventh member. This has the effect of making the higher energy songs even more impactful live, as well as adding appealing texture to the softer numbers that might not have been present on the studio versions. Reynolds is a longstanding figure in DMB lore, introduced to fans via early performances and, especially, the Live at Luther College album on which he and Matthews played two CDs’ worth of acoustic duet. Even though fans arrived already steeped in the idea of acoustic DMB, anticipation, or at least curiosity, ran high as to how this new element might affect the overall show.
It seemed above all to be an excuse to make the mood onstage even looser than normal, to replace Carter Beauford’s tom toms with bongos, and to allow in a mixture of odd but winning song choices – early day chestnuts like “Minarets” and “Christmas Song”, obscure, technically unreleased tunes like “Beach Ball” (which Matthews played solo) and “Little Red Bird” (which Matthews and Beauford played like college kids on a street corner, sans band) and repurposed main set tent poles like “What Would You Say?” and “Two Step”, both of which surprisingly benefitted from the more relaxed setting. Even when confronted with a patent obscurity, something DMB does routinely as a reward to its most ardent fans, I enjoyed myself greatly, and the late set inclusion of jolly Crash staple “Lie in Our Graves” was effortlessly energizing and one of the two highlights of the entire night. The acoustic set started at 7:30 and ran about 50 minutes, about the perfect length for a musical appetizer. I went in dubious the set would have any discernible worth, but now wouldn’t object if it became a staple of tours to come. The band certainly seemed to be enjoying itself.
One interesting, unintended side effect was that, already stoked by DMB Unplugged, it took the crowd a bit longer than normal to get up to full speed and throat when the band hit the stage hard a half hour later. When it finally did, I remember being a little thrown off my game. I dare say it was among the loudest, most active DMB crowds I’ve ever been a part of. The band certainly did its part to spur the crowd along at first, opening with an exponentially fiercer version of “Save Me” than appeared on Matthews’ 2003 solo album Some Devil and then rolling into all-time live favorite “Warehouse”. From there, the set picked up appreciable momentum on pure song quality alone, paying little mind to whether the song being played was a funky stomper (“Belly Belly Nice”), a by turns smoky and soaring torch song (“Crush”) or a giddy, elastic, romantic ode (“Seven”). By the time the evening’s other high water mark – UtTaD’s plaintive, marvelous “Jimi Thing” – rolled around, the crowd, which had already been animated and involved up to that point, simply took the vocal reins from Matthews unprompted, singing the entire first two verses and subsequent choruses loud enough to blend into the P.A. mix beautifully atop the band, hardly dropping a word and never missing a beat. I sang at the top of my voice along with 15 or so thousand others. I’m sure none of us wanted it to end. This seemed to include Matthews, whose grinning, bobbing face was a fixture on the video monitors throughout and didn’t even take a step toward the microphone until he finally resumed his job for the final verse.
In terms of individual moments in the annals of my DMB fandom, this version of “Jimi Thing” ranks right up there with the very best. As is occasionally the sad case, however, the momentum crested thereafter and much, though hardly all, of the remaining show seemed anticlimactic. Pretty album songs like “The Riff” and “Digging a Ditch” were a stark come down from our previously achieved lofty heights when translated live. The band brought out modern jazz/fusion/jam icon Bela Fleck to add some much-needed banjo to the set’s final five songs. The reliably aggressive “Don’t Drink the Water” delivered, as did, to a lesser degree, a ridiculously embellished and extended version of UtTaD’s “Typical Situation”. The returns diminished as the main set came to a close, with the heavy–handed “Drunken Soldier” followed by the up tempo, refreshing “Cornbread”, but then segueing into leaden closer “Grey Street”, a song I’ve never seen much appeal in but that DMB’s larger audience – who, it should be (lovingly) noted, are arguably the most Pavlovian this side of Justin Bieber’s – screamed for as if attempting to approximate Beatlemania fifty years too late. The encore was magnificent – unreleased live deep cut “Granny” had the crowd yelling for a reason I could understand and endorse, and UtTaD’s most enduring single, the bouncy sing along “Ants Marching”, sent us home with a smile on our collective face.
SOCIOLOGY (Grade: C)
I went to the show with a friend of mine, a fellow road warrior, who is among a handful in my circles I would concede knows as much or more about DMB as/than I do. It was nice to have someone to laugh and compare notes with, and it was a fun trip. She mentioned joining a Facebook group for DMB super fans and being exhausted and a little intimidated by their knowledge level. Who really knows every lyric to every song, after all, or can rattle off a list of 100 covers the band has played since 1997, or catalog the minute differences between the ten officially released versions of “Say Goodbye”? Remember how I mentioned earlier that I’ve always felt somewhat apart in a DMB crowd? Truth be told, any DMB audience is such an amalgamation of different types and temperaments of people that it defies easy categorization, but here goes anyway. In any amphitheater show, I’d say 8K or so of the 18,000 audience members are going to feel like me. 4000 are going to be those uber-fans my friend spoke of. 2000 are attending the pricey show as a favor to a significant other, or child, or parent, or for reasons that escape me. 4000 are going to lack any capacity for self-reflection (some for rational thought) and live for the moment in a way that might get messy later on. And I’d say approximately 12,000 are going to act like uber-fans regardless of which group they fall into naturally.
The band is the most dependable variable in the quality equation, obviously, influenced by factors like set list or energy level, but only a fool would assert it stands alone. DMB concerts have long attracted an aromatic cocktail roughly comprised of 1/3 hippie, 1/3 frat boy, and 1/3 miscellaneous other, and these people have more potential influence over your enjoyment of the show than any other fan base I’ve encountered. In Burgettstown, the “bros” were out around me in particular and excessive force, like the Persian army advancing on Thermopylae. I had an aisle seat at about the midpoint of the pavilion. Reserved seating had seemed like a blessing when a makeshift typhoon descended on First Niagara before the show started, but soon showed its more sinister face. The four seats directly in front of me were occupied by a cabal of not four but rather ten rotating bros and well-wishers, culled from (and occasionally augmented by) folks in the two rows in front of them, plus three more girls in a row just over my right shoulder in the adjoining section. Since no mighty river or security gopher can stop the properly motivated, the spot directly in front of me became Grand Central Station for frequent comings and goings by members of this collective, and the aisle beside me filled up to the choking point with the chemically altered and/or chicken dancers.
By show’s end, the only practical way to clear said aisle would’ve been with a snow plow, a solution I would’ve happily paid to test drive. In the meantime, the mass of oversized bromanity before me pulsed and whooped, dipped and swayed and “danced” and staggered. They seemed to communicate exclusively via high fives and middle fingers…oh, and also lots and lots of yelling. So thick and loud and demonstrative was the contingent that I paid less attention to other concertgoing sights, some normal checklist items, like the unfazed young couple making out in full view of everyone, and others not, like the girl who half squeezed into my row from the aisle in a desperate attempt to grind with anyone, or the heavily-moussed ‘80s background dancer who materialized in the aisle close enough to breathe in my ear, and whose arms flailed so wildly he whacked me in the chest. Meanwhile, the fraternity blotting out my field of vision continued, improbably, to swell in number, chivalrously adding coeds to its ranks and also drawing in a couple of stragglers from another section, one of whom I heard tell a bro, “I’m so high I can’t see” before sitting down, hard, and remaining there, motionless, for thirty minutes or so. At least they were bringing him bottled water by show’s end.
It’s no surprise the Alpha Beta pledge brigade adversely affected my time. I am so easily annoyed by rudeness and have a famously low tolerance for said annoyance, plus a stubborn inability once I perceive an offense to let it slide. It’s a personal failing. I want everybody to have a good time. This is good time music. I had a really good time in spite of it all. I just don’t see why your good time should necessarily trump my good time, or those of the people around me. You want me to applaud you for having the foresight and/or commitment to get fall down drunk or gibbering high in order to more thoroughly enjoy a freaking Dave Matthews Band concert? Try having some respect, if not for yourself then for the people around you. Seriously, this little swath of crowd was like nothing I’d quite seen in twenty years of regular DMB concertgoing. At some point, they crossed some threshold of craven self-involvement that kinda impressed me in spite of myself. Then I remembered, “Oh right, I hate these people.” Not DMB fans, mind you, at least not necessarily, and definitely not the bulk of them, who would rather hug a fly than harm it. Just these people.
The four seats in front of me did empty out for five blessed minutes about 1/3 of the way through the show, just in time for Dave to strike up “Jimi Thing” and the crowd to start singing. Some sublime timing, that.
TOTALITY (Final Grade: B)
There’s the rub with reserved seating. You can ostensibly control where you sit, but never who you sit with. Maybe that’s the next technology frontier for Ticketmaster to figure out. We parked in the grass directly adjoining the access road in, so the trip out was remarkably stress-free. And the show itself was well worth it, as it always is on one level or another. 95% of the crowd probably had a much different (my friend told me she sat next to a mother/daughter tandem who’d together made a point of seeing every DMB stop in the area for ten years running) and even better time than I did (it certainly sounded that way), or else subtly contributed to some other pretentious goof’s overlong blog post. Oh well. To co-opt the title of Primus’ Greatest Hits album, they can’t all be zingers. But I have more than enough history and great memories seeing this band blow the roof off various buildings while 18,000 people inside have an unimpeachably great time that it’s forever worth the effort to see it again. I like my odds. Next year I might even try Cleveland for a change, no matter how many hometown compliments my Steelers jersey got.