Concert review: The Dave Matthews Band (second opinion)

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Klipsch Music Center, Noblesville, IN – July 18, 2015

The Dave Matthews Band is among the great singular outliers in my personal musical landscape – itself a massive, loosely bound, often logic-optional continuum that, built up over the course of thirty years, was already surprisingly lousy with them. As a dyed-in-the-wool metal fan, my longstanding passion for this particular band has led, variously, to rounds of strident interrogation, sound condemnation, and, occasionally, clandestine approval*, from my peers, though that’s really nothing compared to the dismissive shade I’ve seen thrown from more respectable corners of the pop, rock and indie arenas. “Is Dave Matthews Band’s Under the Table and Dreaming any good 20 years later?” shouted the headline of, to me, a particularly provocative AVClub article on the occasion of the album’s inevitable anniversary reissue last fall. I read with bated breath. The consensus of the three roundtable participants seemed to be a fairly resounding “no”, as two of them characterized DMB as an adolescent phase they’d thankfully long since outgrown and the third was far less charitable. Their opinions stung for a few reasons, since Dreaming remains one of my very favorite longplayers of all time, and since, by taking as much space to shallow grave the album as I usually do to praise whatever might constitute the tip-top of my current list, the AVClub, a site whose criticism I value far more than most, was, through implication, hucking rocks at my musical taste itself. I’ve read more than enough Pitchfork to know better than to care what professional snipers think about the bands I like, but it’s still a weird thing to encounter. To be fair, these three writers, who lacked my extended personal history, were answering what they must’ve interpreted as a pretty benign question to the best of their abilities (abilities which rightly include snark). I admit I was somewhat taken aback.

*Metal fans often appreciate technical ability and musicianship above other concerns, and the twin degrees of difficulty and effortlessness manifested in Carter Beauford’s drumming make him, at the very least, difficult to dismiss outright.

If I still tend to romanticize the band an uncomfortable lot, I think it has much to do with the fact that I saw DMB in a live setting at a discerning but nevertheless now unfathomably tender young age, in 1995, almost two months to the day after I first bought Dreaming on CD. That show was one of a handful of truly transformative live experiences I’ve ever been party to. If the AVClub staff discounted Dreaming out of hand in retrospect, I imagine it was, at least in part, because they grew out of their DMB “phase” (one writer purported to have never had one) before they had the chance to experience the band live. I know for a fact the album, though immediately welcoming and both refreshingly buoyant and quirky, was still little more than a pleasant diversion for me until that first night, under the stars in Knoxville, TN’s World’s Fair Park, forced an immediate and intensive reconsideration. DMB’s live prowess is, of course, legend in certain overlapping circles, spurred onward by breathless firsthand accounts and zealous tape trading amongst its fan base, and later perpetuated in part through a seemingly bottomless well of officially released show documents. Even in a world where musical artists of every stripe have placed a premium on touring as album and single revenue has dwindled, seeing The Dave Matthews Band once is rarely ever enough. A mere introduction to the DMB live experience is often sufficient to turn fence-sitters into well-wishers, well-wishers into active fans, and fans into ardent torchbearers.** I was one of those active fans twenty years ago, turning the corner into what would be a pretty magical straightaway. On this brutally hot night in a converted cornfield on the outskirts of Indianapolis, the DMB experience was in full, blissful, borderline punishing, effect, though some residual malaise lingered. Maybe a reassessment was finally in order? Had I, in fact, been treading needless water with this band for years? Could it possibly still represent everything it had to me back in the summer of ’95? How the hell old was I anyway?

**For what it’s worth, DMB was not only Pollstar’s top live artist of the Aughts, it made the list of Billboard’s top 25 touring acts of 2014. So someone (besides me) is going.

Assuming the purpose of this show was to finally offer me an opportunity for sober reflection, and maybe, just maybe, a clean break with the past, it was a resounding and magnificent failure. As an ebbing and free-flowing extended evening of jazzy, loose-limbed rock and roll, however, it was fairly spectacular. The terminally affable Matthews has been touring with his extended crew for so long, and has such command by now of both his audience and the ingredients that go into their happiness, that his shows possess an inherent baseline quality level that, subjectively, well exceeds most other touring acts. Long gone now, obviously, are the halcyon days of my mid-late twenties, when I would, as a matter of course, endeavor to see DMB amphitheater shows two, three, or more times every summer, traveling at short notice on the slightest provocation, greedily soaking up the music the way sun-worshippers soak up rays, enjoying the unrivaled people-watching and generally relaxed vibe (a reliably sharp contrast to many other shows I frequent), comparing notes on the twists and turns of each night’s dramatically different set list, burrowing my way headfirst into the groove and hoping it would never recede. In recent years, I’ve contented myself with making time for one show per annum, and have spent the last four summers alternating between seeing DMB at the First Niagara Pavilion just outside of Pittsburgh or at Central Indiana’s Klipsch Music Center***. Even after so many long hauls and so many nights out under the stars, it’s still demonstrably worth the time and expense, though my experience last summer in Pittsburgh left a slightly bitter taste. As my friends find themselves either restricted geographically or, as young parents, with dramatically (and properly) shifted priorities, I’ve increasingly made these journeys alone.

***Charming in a slyly corporate way, the Klipsch Music Center is papered over with big tent attitude, its amphitheater bedecked with wall-covering slogans like, “Tonight we rock!” and “Tell the neighbors we’re not sorry!” For such a giant place, it has an appealingly homey atmosphere. I’ll be back again, the sooner the better.

If it was all simply about music in my ears and miles on the odometer, I’d never have a care, but going solo to any show means inevitably being at least subtly influenced by the behavior of the people around you, far more than you might be in a pair, or with a group. Because my hometown of Columbus, Ohio is now in the waning days of what has been a marvelous, pretty much unprecedented summer concert season, I’ve been entirely content to go it alone of late, knowing I would never be far from home or ever particularly out of my element. By contrast, my surroundings last June were such a contributing factor to my overall dissatisfaction with the night that I subdivided the corresponding DMB review into “Musicology” and “Sociology” sections just so I’d have a platform from which to rant about the idiots what enveloped, and so thoroughly depressed, me. On the basis of my trips in 2013 and, especially, this year, Indiana may have just seized the initiative going forward. Not only did the DMB, refactoring its acoustic/electric two set philosophy from last summer into something even more expansive and appealing for this round, cheerfully exceed the 3-hour mark in total stage time, I got to watch the show with a fun, utterly unassuming swath of crowd – chilled out young couples, a full family, and even one guy who, during idle chatter before the acoustic set began, revealed he lived on the west side of Columbus, a few blocks from me, and had made the same drive I had. It was a far cry from the twenty-car pileup of frat boy attitude**** I’d suffered the previous year. Where Pittsburgh’s acoustic set had felt largely underwhelming at the time, a place for lazy, stripped down run-throughs of random covers or cuts so deep I couldn’t readily identify them, this year’s version seemed conceptually reborn, replete with not simply those sorts of digressions (just deep enough cut “Spoon”, which Dave sang solo, the moody “Bartender”, jaunty early chestnut “One Sweet World”) but full-blown crowd pleasers that, on the best nights, so thoroughly populate the larger electric set. Old school, up tempo songs I never would’ve expected to hear in an acoustic set (paleolithic standouts “Recently” and “Tripping Billies”, inaugural MTV hit “What Would You Say”) weren’t just trotted out for show but torn the hell up. It was a welcome early jolt of energy beyond the obvious, and an indication that the show was going to be lively and unpredictable throughout. Seated on high bar chairs, the assembled seven-man band certainly seemed to be enjoying itself.

****Lest you think the Indiana crowd bereft of idiocy, I should report I did spot the local frat boy contingent once the main set started, standing several rows below me in various states of shirtlessness, hands casually above their heads in an apparent attempt to spur the frenzied crowd into cheering louder, or looking their way, or something. Soon after, the five-headed Abercrombie monster spontaneously saunter-exited for reasons that escape me, rarely to return. Guess they had somewhere to be. Still, they were harmless, and far less obnoxious than the prior year’s platoon. I was left with the thought that it must be nice to have truly disposable income. I was intent on wringing maximum value out of mine.

The acoustic set lasted a solid hour, and set the proper tone. Whereas I’d felt restless the previous year, I now felt primed. Twenty minutes later, the main set began with arguably the best opening I’d heard in two decades of DMB concert going. The joyful summertime anthem “Stay (Wasting Time)” christened DMB’s time on stage in perhaps the most engaging way possible, with its laconic but infectious main riff, call and response brass interjections, and soulful entreaties from a trio of special guest stars, the legendary (in certain circles) backup singers The Lovely Ladies, to, “stay, stay, stay, stay for a while”. Turns out that we all wanted to. The opening fifteen minutes of any Dave Matthews Band show is a stretch that embodies so much of what I love about live music, and about this band in particular. I always sit as close to the aisle as I can, partly for the extra space but partly also for my unobstructed view of the aisle itself, which, during the early and late moments of a DMB show, dependably turns into an impromptu block party. All the folks that have been standing in beer lines or otherwise meandering to their seats get the fear of God firmly implanted by the music and can be seen swarming up the aisle from below me, or down from above, strutting, dancing, beaming, gesticulating, and, above all, singing. Dave Matthews Band shows are filled to the brim with dancing in the aisles, dancing in place, dancing in the eyes as you take it all in. One of my very favorite songs segued into another, the yearning “#41”, and then into live standout “Don’t Drink the Water”, a simmering, mid-tempo conservationist’s anthem on album that, turned loose on stage, becomes a barely-restrained, headbang-worthy rager. Hot on its heels, DMB pulled out an unexpected big gun with its barnstorming, just short of literal cover of “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads.***** Thereafter, the set finally contracted into the more varied affair it normally is, allowing for a ludicrously expansive but still effective 13-minute version of “Lying in the Hands of God”, the ebullient crowd sing along of quintessential live album only hit “Granny”, the achingly romantic, similarly extended “Crush”, and, finally, the throwback to 1994 charm of Under the Table and Dreaming’s breezy “Jimi Thing”, a song I once intentionally and unironically played sandwiched in between Carcass and Megadeth on my college radio show, so oblivious, and in love with it, was I at the time.

*****Easily my favorite cover by a band that already features them extensively (prominent others include Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You”, and Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil”), “BDtH” is a surprisingly monstrous thumper live, though the highlight for me was watching repeated big screen close-ups of stoic but game trumpet player Rashawn Ross looking incredibly uncomfortable while he sang backup.

Time dims some passions, of course, but others endure. In Western Pennsylvania, Dave had let the enthusiastic audience essentially take over the singing of “Jimi Thing”. He stood way back from the microphone and just strummed, grinning, once we had proven we were equal to the task. In Central Indiana, the crowd sang only the first verse before he took back the initiative for the soaring chorus. It was still a stirring and powerful reminder of the many wondrous things we, as both music fans and fans of this music, had in common. Before the encore began, I saw people frantically urging others in their row to turn around. The entire lawn section behind us, huge and saturated with people, was spontaneously holding up their cell phones, flashlight attachments beaming towards the stage, a veritable ocean of tiny white lights, a second, brighter, night sky suspended below the real one. My breath caught a little, my smile returned after a brief hiatus, and immediately widened. The band seemed visibly moved by the gesture as it returned to stage. We all relaxed and let the moment stretch out as long as was necessary, before they kicked into “So Much to Say”. As it turns out, despite gentle, respectful absentee prodding from the indie rock media, I wasn’t near ready to turn the page on The Dave Matthews Band. At that moment, in fact, I loved them just as much as I ever had. I really dislike writing negative reviews, even one as relatively mild as my ’14 DMB sojourn to Pittsburgh, which I still graded a B (its set list was comparatively pedestrian, in addition to the sweaty dullardry that flanked me on multiple sides, but, as I mentioned earlier, all DMB shows still have a baseline level of excellence). It’s my money and my time, after all. I’m not rooting for anyone to fail, particularly not a band I’ve invested so much emotion in over the years. I love that this show allowed me to straighten out any lingering imbalance. Late in the set, Matthews, whose amiable, mumbling stage patter is only ever intelligible to me about half the time, thanked the crowd for “spending Saturday night with us,” then remarked, “this is probably the most I’ve ever sweated in my entire life”. I was, in truth, ridiculously dehydrated, so much that I felt appreciably lighter, like a fighter cutting weight the morning of the weigh-in. I admit it might also have been the music talking.

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