Riverbend Music Center, Cincinnati, Ohio – May 20, 2016
Everyone enjoys his or her “down time” differently. Some people only truly come alive as a part of a group. They seek out others by instinct. Some people travel for the sake of it. Others commune with nature. A raging introvert from the womb onward, I’ve never particularly minded my own company. I love concerts, and movies in the theater, alone or not. Failing that, I tend to hunker down in my bomb shelter of a ground floor apartment and cycle through an array of entertainment options (books, games, music, movies) sufficient to make Chris Hardwick blush. Considering the subject matter this site routinely traffics in, tell me you’re surprised. Being outside isn’t exactly my default mode, though it can actually serve to make me much more appreciative of, excited by, and up for a particularly nice day, just not necessarily to see a show. Despite my friends who love them, I generally despise the obscene quantity to quality/expense to return ratio of all those ubiquitous multi-day summer festivals, preferring, as at any other time of year, to make my showgoing bones day-to-day in intimate, compact, dimly-lit clubs. I don’t really recognize an outdoor concert season per se, with, I concede, the notable exception of my yearly pilgrimage(s) to see The Dave Matthews Band. For the last sixteen summers at least, as well as a handful from the prior millennium, free spirited scat-guitarist Dave Matthews and his incredibly polarizing, undeniably talented band have been the harbinger of proper summertime for me – if not always manifested as a sudden, appreciable uptick to beautiful weather, then at least as momentary membership in a blissful, collective state of mind. That’s about the best a creature like me, hardwired for nocturnal life and with metal coursing through his veins, might plausibly ask for.
Though I’ve alternated the last five summers between seeing DMB in the rugged hills of Western Pennsylvania and equally forbidding corn of Eastern Indiana – road trips of 3+ hours, each – I haven’t historically always had to work so hard to usher in my own personal summer. Back before my hometown of Columbus shuttered the entirely adequate – and in many ways exceptional – Polaris/ Germain Amphitheater in the late aughts, DMB regularly made not merely house calls to Central Ohio but overnight stays. Those two-show mini-residencies rank among them some of the best individual nights in my concert going memory, or, rather, they would if seeing the Dave Matthews Band live was any sort of wholly conventional, linear A-Z journey and not, instead, a deliriously random assortment of outstanding, occasionally breathtaking individual moments hermetically sealed for freshness inside a dome containing 10,000 or so raving, soulful yahoos. On a website that prides itself on the breadth of its topics and general lack of duplication, I’ve now officially covered DMB more than any other live act, which stands to reason, since, at approaching thirty times (the real answer is “so many I’ve lost count”), I’ve seen them more than almost any other band. Each new DMB concert for me is both its own organism and, in its way, an imperfect but often thrilling direct reflection of the first time I saw them, the night that sealed the deal, in July of 1995 at Knoxville, TN’s World’s Fair Park. That was one sublime evening, standing with my two best friends at the front of a freshly mown field beneath the towering “Sun Sphere” as this pleasant, unexpected communal moment washed over me like the incoming tide, lengthening and expanding until it blotted out my horizon. The experience subtly but irrevocably reconfigured my insides the way that only music, or, I suppose, religion, really can.
Except, perhaps, for that very first night, there is no such thing as the perfect DMB set list to me. The band’s nine (in 1995, two) album official discography offers up a particularly esoteric bounty of songs that laze and bounce in a roughly 65/35% proportion but that are, within those parameters, likely to range just about anywhere. For example, I remember being especially moved in 1995, if not completely mesmerized, by the outwardly demure, tightly coiled set opener, “Seek Up”, an extra strength/double length live version of an already seven-minute song that made my purchase of DMB’s independent debut Remember Two Things that very night a foregone conclusion and, more than anything, lit my way toward the farther reaches of fandom. “Seek Up” remains one of my very favorite DMB songs, even leading off the band’s first ever live album – Live at Red Rocks, which documented a show barely a week removed from when I saw them in Knoxville – but, I’d only ever hear it live again once, despite another twenty-five opportunities or more to do so. One of the indelible memories of my musical life was the minor eureka moment I experienced in Knoxville listening to the playful, existential “Dancing Nancies”, the song arguably most worthy of acclaim on an album – 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming – that is simply overflowing with should’ve been singles. “Could I have been anyone other than me?” is the type of obvious and eloquent, self-empowering homily that a pretentious college student like I was can chew on for days, but it was Matthews’ chorus entreaty to, “Look up at the sky” that made the greatest impression on me. When I did as I was told on that intoxicating summer night, the array of stars that greeted me seemed to twinkle with a diamond’s brilliance. Table would become one of my very favorite albums of all time; yet on so many nights, the band revisits it at best only a handful of times – at worst, once.
I mentioned the primacy of individual moments earlier. When it comes to The Dave Matthews Band live, the intensely personal accumulation of all those wonderful points, junctures, and instants experienced along the way is the true coin of the realm, and the only basis for comparison of adjacent shows between knowledgeable fellow fans. I’ve had those sorts of show conversations with both friends and anonymous rowmates that weren’t there when I was, but knew what I was saying regardless. They not only understand why I’m excited but share in it, even secondhand. The questions that tend to define other live bands are, for DMB, a good start, partial illumination of a more complicated whole. I couldn’t always grasp the distinction, or even identify it, but I’m getting better with time, and remain, happily, just as excited by the prospect of experiencing more as I ever was. Because, in this sort of venue – tonight, Cincinnati’s ever problematic Riverbend Music Center – I’m invariably an impatient sort, demanding only instant gratification, I used to grade DMB shows exclusively based on their set list. Now that’s more of a starting point. (Most) Everyone knows the songs. The songs are a given. The question becomes not merely, “which songs”, but “how did they play them?” Can the band build and sustain momentum, not only within a song but between two, or four, or more? In a band brimming with tremendous players, whose star shone brightest? Did anything truly surprise you? Invigorate you? What, and how much, and how did it make you feel?
Take, for example, the Riverbend version of the driving, insistent “Why I Am”, a song I’ve enjoyed live on multiple previous occasions. This time, however, there was a noticeable extra gear. You could hear the additional grit in Matthews voice and read it in his countenance plastered across the stage-spanning big screen, as he sang of, “still (being) here, dancing with the GrooGrux King,” a direct reference to founding saxophonist Leroi Moore, whose untimely passing first shook and later creatively galvanized the band. The resultant 2009 effort Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, with its New Orleans flair and restless applied eclecticism, was a return to late nineties prime form after a decade largely spent meandering. With its rubbery spine and runaway ultra-romanticism, “Seven”, from that same album, has become one of my very favorite latter-day DMB tracks, a song that routinely assumes control of my central nervous system in a live setting and operates me via remote control like a child’s toy. At Riverbend, it was giddy, loose-limbed perfection. Speaking of romantic gestures, the lovely, soaring (personal) all-time fave “#41” is pretty much DMB’s last word on the subject, even in a catalogue replete with other breathless, heartfelt examples. The band swoons and swells, taking the audience along with them. For all the diversions my home bunker offers, the ability to be one of ten thousand voices singing a mutually-beloved chorus remains something I’m unfortunately unable to approximate, though the memory is preserved in amber. It doesn’t get old.
Given DMB’s stubborn general refusal to follow the rules of other live acts, anything I’ve personally witnessed more than four or five times, even at shows held years apart, qualifies to my thinking as a common occurrence, whether or not reality agrees. The Riverbend evening began, as at least a handful of my others had before it, with the buoyant, off-time carousel ride of Remember’s “One Sweet World”, and, soon enough, segued into two of the band’s more dependable crowd-pleasers, the rollicking, gluttonous fun of “Too Much”, and the slow/high-boiling cauldron of “Don’t Drink the Water”, a song so impassioned that its climax makes headbangers out of hippies and yuppies alike. The Under the Table and Dreaming roulette wheel landed on the band’s comparatively uninspiring* but still welcome long-ago debut single, “What Would You Say?”, with the caveat that this time around, instead of devolving into yet another Boyd Tinsley endurance fiddle-thon, the closing harmonica solo originally performed by Blues Traveler’s John Popper was totally blown into orbit by resident woodwind specialist Jeff Coffin – on flute. Not to be outdone, fan favorite Tinsley – witness the trio of folks I passed on the way in sporting big, loud “Boyd F%^king Tinsley” shirts – would later grab such greedy hold of the spotlight during perhaps the longest version of jaunty Crash chestnut “Lie In Our Graves” ever** that I legitimately worried he might never relinquish it***. Of the nineteen songs comprising the main set, I had active interest in, we’ll say, a dozen. Whether that qualifies as a baker’s or an accountant’s dozen isn’t terribly important, since the percentage is still excellent either way.**** Moreover, four of the stragglers were as yet unreleased, live workshopped songs of the type whose dogged, borderline obsessive pursuit, above all, separates the “true” fans from the “me”.
*Compared in this case to “Dancing Nancies”, of course, and also to “Jimi Thing”, “Ants Marching”, “Warehouse”, and “The Best of What’s Around”, among others.
**Seriously, the band didn’t even circle back to the empirically awesome, climactic “Graves” reprise, and I’m not sure anyone really missed it.
***As in, Boyd Tinsley is still standing on the stage at Riverbend this very minute, joyfully and obliviously playing the centerpiece fiddle solo to “Lie in Our Graves”, well over a week after the rest of his band skipped town. I’m sure the Dixie Chicks, by now also in a neighboring state, are wondering what the hell he was doing up there. Hyperbole, as ever, is my friend, but it honestly felt a bit like things were heading that way.
****DMB apparently picked this show to end its nightly, set-ending tribute interpolation of Prince’s “Sexy M.F.’er”, whose absence was my evening’s only legitimate quibble.
With this post, I’m officially calling a moratorium for Darkadaptedeye on DMB reviews. It’s been fun and all, but three’s enough. It wasn’t my initial intention to write a pair, let alone a trio, but, even as a concert going veteran who has, over the course of two+ decades, seen many, many dozens of bands many, many hundreds of times, there remain vanishingly few artists I’m more familiar with. I relish the degree to which, even though my knowledge exceeds roughly 70% of the people there (DMB superfans are the Webster’s definition of “dedicated”), I still kinda feel like an outsider. Juice remains to be squeezed. The Pittsburgh show of my initial review was so clouded by problems with the locals that it actively impeded my ability to enjoy myself. In Cincy, I was instead surrounded by fairly awesome people, flanked on either side by a swirly hippie dancer and a post-grad power couple, plus a gaggle of true believers in the row before me, all demonstrably as in love with the music, and the moment, as I was. The “second opinion” Indy show, of course, remedied a great many of Pittsburgh’s ills and shone through as a solid, if not spectacular, example of the band owning its element without reservation. Why then the need for a third account? Because this year, more than any I can think of, I really just needed summer to arrive – physically, metaphorically, whatever – and because, in two tries, we still hadn’t really touched greatness, which, for this band, all comes back to transcendent moments. I’ve already brought up some standouts, but nothing could prepare me for the moment, hard on the heels of “Don’t Drink the Water”’s typically furious finish, that I heard the gentle, probing acoustic guitar riff of “Seek Up” for the first time live in a decade or more. My knowing rowmates erupted. The hair on my forearms stood up. My mind raced back to a crowded field in 1995 and my heart sang, wholly present in both moments, and, at once, unbelievably happy.
Nine songs later and well over an additional hour into the best Dave Matthews Band show I’d seen in some time, the band abruptly slammed into the Middle Eastern-flavored rumbling train that is “The Last Stop”, my favorite song even amongst the tall trees of 1998’s stellar Before These Crowded Streets, and, as the most prominent DMB song that I had never before witnessed live, something of a personal Holy Grail. You’ll never hear the famously improvisational and casually groovy collective more ferocious or electric, with Tim Reynolds’ squalling leads, Carter Beauford’s precision six-handed drumming, and Matthews’ own channeled snarl layered one atop another and set against a video backdrop of quick-cut close-ups and apocalyptic flames. For any other band, “The Last Stop” would’ve served as both self-evident climax and self-fulfilling prophecy. I certainly readied myself for the looming finale, emotionally left wanting nothing. Instead, DMB, which has always adhered to a strict “more is more” policy, ended its 150-minute set with extended, affecting versions of two more songs. Internet outrage, even after such a Herculean main set, over the underwhelming one-song encore apparently spurred the band to unleash a knockout, unprecedented five-song encore the next night in the sleepy suburbs of Cleveland, but it made no matter to me. I was halfway to my car before the first notes of the encore rang out, and if you’ve ever parked in the wrong (Coney Island) lot at Riverbend, you know that’s not exactly a light walk. I had my moments, I had my memories, and none but my feet had reason for the least complaint.