Dave Matthews Band’s Crash turned twenty on April 30, 2016.
I don’t have time to mark all such occasions for albums from ~1996 that I hold up as iconic, but I did so for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and must do so again here. Like that other entry, this won’t be a song-by-song novella, but I’d still like to log some thoughts to mark the occasion.
Depending on how you parse it, Crash is either the second or third album released by the band. I suppose it’s officially seen as the second major label release (after 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming) and studio album. However, this doesn’t count the band’s self-released debut Remember Two Things from 1993, a mix of live and studio recordings that was eventually given a wider, major label pressing and re-release. Be it second or third, Crash was a juggernaut. “Crash Into Me,” “So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” and “Tripping Billies” dominated the airwaves, and the album is currently 7X platinum. Stats aside, this album is a monumental one for me personally. Regular readers should know by now that DMB is a cornerstone of my musical DNA, and this album was my “patient zero” — my entry point.
Even though “What Would You Say?” and “Ants Marching” had crossed my ears, I distinctly remember the time I first I knowingly heard “So Much to Say,” Crash‘s lead single. To date this then-adolescent, I was watching MTV and taken aback by seeing a saxophonist playing in such a quality, catchy song. I dug it and wanted more. Not long after, I purchased the CD and quickly seared every note and syllable into my brain. I listened to the full album constantly: at home, in the car, on my bike, doing yard work, walking around the neighborhood, etc. And I mean the full album — every last song. Often times I’d put in the CD and just select “repeat all” and let it go. I would of course go through spurts where I listened to some songs repetitively more than others, but in this album’s case every song got a turn. Nothing was glossed over.
Fast favorites for me were “#41,” “Two Step,” and “Let You Down,” but that studio recording of “#41” left a specific still-deep impression for several reasons. The instrumental jam, though short by the band’s live standards, particularly engaged this then-young saxophone student. By 1996, I had fallen down the rock rabbit hole. I made room for other styles, too, but as I wrote here I was under the spell of Smashing Pumpkins et al. That said, I also had a burgeoning interest in the saxophone, and there really no bands that I was aware of that included a fully-integrated saxophonist. I mean, I listened to a ton of oldies growing up. However, as I wrote here, much of the sax’s use then (and to a large extent now) was either a novelty or a cameo. Furthermore, those bands that did regularly use saxophone still preferred to exploit that honky rhythm & blues sound (e.g., Pink Floyd). So, to hear an album by a current band that both included sax and was good (great!) made quite an impression. And not only did it include saxophone, but the instrument was integral to the record’s — and, as I later learned, the band’s — sound, be it in the background, foreground, or just part of the overall texture.
Another thing about “#41” that was important for me at the time was the realization and understanding that some sort of improvising was occurring. At the time (I was 12 going on 13 — cut me some slack), I knew of jazz but wasn’t strongly interested in it, and the idea of full-blown improvising was something I knew happened, but not for extended periods of time in more “mainstream” solos and styles. Also, to focus to Crash, LeRoi Moore‘s brief riff-based solo on “Too Much” remains intact to this day, though it did go away for a few years. I heard the same thing on Letterman as I did on the album. “#41,” though, was another story. The violin and flute solos I liked, but they were short and bounced along with the rhythmic feel from the song proper. Roi’s sax solo, on the other hand…that was a whole different entity for me. In fact, I listened to that solo so much that I almost considered it a different song. Looking back, I think it was the first instrumental solo I committed to memory. I could sing or whistle it at the drop of a hat. Carter’s cymbal crash at 04:27 helps note the shift in feel, and Roi’s off to the races.
(Imagine my delight when, in 2010, Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross started playing an interlude horn line that used bits from Roi’s studio solo…)
In fact, I often thought of it as the “Moonlighting solo” to myself, as the rhythm section’s groove reminded me of the Moonlighting theme song. (A song that, when I heard it by the time I was 6, I really liked. Having recently listened back via YouTube, I don’t remain as sold on it, but in my mind there’s a connection. Ha!)
Even though “#41” remained a centerpiece (and to this day my favorite DMB song), it certainly wasn’t the only piece to make an impression. Instrumentally, Roi’s solo on the outro of “Proudest Monkey” was another improvisatory standout. That, and his soprano sax tone sounded magnificent to me. Even now, when I think of soprano tone, that’s one of the first things to come to mind along with Dave Liebman.
That’s enough shop talk, though. Back to the album at large.
Not only was the saxophone’s immersion in the band’s sound a game-changer, but so was the band’s overall sound of being a rock band with no lead guitar. (Well, at least at it’s core. I continue to contest that being the case these days.) Yes, Tim Reynolds is present throughout the album, but he’s felt more than explicitly heard. Instead, I was listening to a band that figured out how to rock with both a violin and saxophone (and flute!). Wild!
Also, Crash covers a fair amount of stylistic ground. The overall atmosphere of the album is cohesive, but the band covers a respectable range that includes rock/pop (“So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” “Tripping Billies”), more jam- and jazz-influenced fare (“#41,” “Say Goodbye,” and “Proudest Monkey”), ballads (“Crash Into Me,” “Let You Down,” “Cry Freedom”), the in-between (“Lie In Our Graves”), and a couple hard-driving selections (“Two Step,” “Drive In Drive Out”).
Most people consider the follow-up, 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, to be the band’s best album, and it’s a consistent favorite among much of the hardcore fan base. I definitely see where BTCS devotees are coming from (and, in some respects, I agree that it’s DMB’s best): it’s an epic album with superb songs. That said, its grandiosity is something that gets in the way when I’m thinking of what makes an album my favorite when it comes to DMB (or most any band, I suppose). BTCS features Alanis Morissette, Béla Fleck, Kronos Quartet, and many more. It’s a big studio undertaking whereas Crash, still a big studio album, features the core five (plus Tim Reynolds) and, for the most part, features a pretty “live” sound. One drawback I always saw with Under the Table and Dreaming was the production — maybe it was the time and technology, but the album has much less of a “live” presence than Crash.)
At the end of the day, Crash is my personal favorite. Admittedly, it may partially be for nostalgic reasons, as it’s where it all started for me. Even so, it’s the band’s studio album I listen to the most, and it’s the one I keep handy in case I need a fix. For example, I use my iPod Classic when I’m on the move, but I do keep select albums on my iPhone and iPad, and Crash is always the first DMB one to get thrown on there. Its song selection, live sound, and lack of guests (beyond Reynolds) combine to offer a great distillation of a band that’s become a real piece of my life over these last two decades.
And with that, here’s to many more with Crash and the band…
Seemingly, fandom isn’t gauged just by what you like, but also how you like it and what else you may dislike. This partisan aspect has long baffled – and often irritates – me. I touched on this a bit in this long post about Dave Matthews Band specifically.
Allow me to briefly indulge one of my great lifelong interests that hasn’t yet been mentioned once on this site. In doing so, I’d also like to go far out on a limb to offer an unexpected analogy. Consider it in the vein of one of my favorite posts (on Wagner & Seinfeld), though neither as detailed nor robust. That as yet unnamed interest? Star Wars. Its analogy? Dave Matthews Band.
Unless you haven’t heard, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is out now. Commercial ubiquity notwithstanding, this is a big event for myself and legions of other deep fans. Taken together, the Star Wars series are my default favorite movies, and the story has been with me as long as I can remember. (A cherished childhood bath toy of mine was a Gamorrean guard action figure.) I won’t go through and defend my Star Wars pedigree, but suffice it to say that I’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and money (and my mom’s when younger) to the franchise over my life. As an example, though, I can’t recall a year in which I haven’t received at least one Star Wars-related gift.
Once this new sequel trilogy (ST) is complete, it’ll tell a tale that spans three generations and has been over forty years in the making. It’s been a decade since the last entry (Episode III); or, according to some, it’s been over three decades (Episode VI, discounting I-III altogether). Episode VII‘s opening night was, admittedly, emotional for me, and it was one of the most fun movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long while, likely since the final moments of Episode III in 2005.
I write series above to take the entire story into account. Yes, I’m a prequel trilogy (PT) defender. It’s worth mentioning, of course, because nowadays (and in recent years) the PT has come under universal fire from both non-fans and fans alike. I’ve been hard pressed to find an article or conversation about VII that doesn’t also include at least a glancing blow to the prequels. Similarly, in conversations with other fans over the years, it’s become apparent that fandom becomes partisan: it’s not enough to love Star Wars, but one must also distance himself from the PT (and, to a certain extent, George Lucas himself). I’m the first to acknowledge the prequels’ myriad flaws, the two most pronounced of which are the acting and the special effects. However, the PT’s biggest asset, to me, was that it told a new story. Granted, the eventual destination was a given (i.e., the rise of Darth Vader), but little of the journey was known. And, though it may seem counterintuitive considering the near universal praise of VII, I believe that the prequels have, in a sense, been propped up a bit by the newest installment.
I came home from my first seeing Episode VII to a quiet house with everyone asleep, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I was pretty jazzed up and still sporting my ear-to-ear grin. Aside from the movie being so fun, I was greatly impressed by J.J. Abrams’s ability to powerfully capture the look and the feel of the original trilogy (OT). Unable to sleep, I ruminated on what I had just seen, and gradually a big concern started to accompany the giddiness: I’d seen this all before, but in Episode IV (and bits of V and VI). I of course noticed all of the cues and nods (and “echoes” as it’s been euphemistically stated in the press) while watching the movie (e.g., Tattooine, Death Star, Death Star II attack run, Mos Eisley, Luke’s lightsaber in the wampa cave, etc.), but I let them go. The more I thought about it, however, the more I felt almost insulted. A number of reviews mention this, but often only in passing. I mean, in a vacuum, the movie is really great. But in the context of the overall series, it treads trodden trails. Much like Rey nesting in an aged, abandoned AT-AT, Abrams has come home to roost in the decades-old shell of the OT. I waited many years to see the story continue in a new direction, only to get a quasi-reboot, albeit cleverly executed.
As George Lucas correctly noted in his recent interview with Charlie Rose, “[Disney] wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that… Every movie I work… very hard to make them… completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships… make it new…”
(This of course makes it seem like I dislike the movie. My repeated viewings attest otherwise. I’m just airing a grievance.)
Disney and Abrams decided to play it safe “for the fans.” In corporate speak, that just means “recycle what’s popular.” Instead of an inventive space opera about family dynamics (OT) or an unexpected dive into political gamesmanship and interpersonal relationships (PT), Abrams et al. decided to don Han’s proverbial old coat (new coat?) for one last joy ride. Now I sit and wait for Episode VIII, as that will certainly determine the ultimate fate of VII. If it’s a re-hashing of V, then that’s truly bad and VII becomes deeply scarred. If it goes in a new direction, this can be largely forgotten. As a craftsman, Abrams did a near perfect job, but I’m delighted that he won’t be directing the next installment.
It seems odd to complain so much about something I so much enjoy. I just can’t believe that, with everything VII got so right (the atmosphere, acting, and minutiae), the story goes almost nowhere new.
I said this had something to do with Dave Matthews Band, right?
As detailed here (and so I don’t have to again in this post), I find myself, once again, in the perceived minority when it comes to their discography (similar to the series above). As I explained in that post, I believe that the now-eschewed post-Lillywhite albums of the band’s arguable “middle period” (Everyday and Stand Up) are more in line with the core or so-called “classic” DMB approach than its successors Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King (as electric of an album as its immediate predecessors, if not more so) and Away from the World. Yes, Everyday and Stand Up appear different on the surface — Dave playing electric guitar, shorter arrangements, a more “pop” production aesthetic — but the overall musical formula remained: saxophone and violin as lead melodic and solo instruments, intricate rhythm guitar parts and patterns, and despite the songs’ lengths, many of them stretched out when performed live.
(It’s worth noting, for the record, that a third studio album, Busted Stuff, was released during that “middle period.” Nowhere near as electric as the other two, it was a re-recording of much of the fabled Lillywhite Sessions, released with less fanfare than is typical of the band. Fan reception is often mixed on this one as well.)
Supposedly, this “classic” sound returned with Big Whiskey…, an album in which Tim Reynolds’s electric guitar starts to dominate melodically and the horns (and there’s still a violin, right?) become more a stereotypical rock horn section than individual melodic assets. (Coincidentally, Big Whiskey… is the band’s seventh studio album…DMB’s own Episode VII?) Part of what makes the band stand out from the rest — a rock band with no lead guitar — was largely foregone. This move was further solidified in Away from the World, the band’s triumphant return to its partnership with producer Steve Lillywhite, lauded by many as was the ST’s stewardship by J.J. Abrams — a return to the “original approach” done “for the fans.” And yet both missed the mark in certain respects: Away sounds more like a Dave Matthews solo album than a DMB effort, and Abrams’s VII is a quasi-reboot of IV as opposed to a new story headed in a new direction.
One big difference between these two properties is that, regardless of approach, DMB’s sound continues to grow and evolve. Any discussion of a “classic sound” is largely an academic exercise. Star Wars, on the other hand, risks no longer growing nor evolving in new directions depending on what happens after VII.
Taking a step back, however, my little analogy comes more into focus. For both DMB and Star Wars, respectively:
• The early releases — the first three studio albums and first three films — loom large over the rest of the catalogue.
• The middle period — the second three studio albums and films — are often vocally disliked by the fan base despite being commercially successful.
• The middle period brought divisive technical change — commercialized production and special effects.
• The middle period continued using parts of the old approach — keeping the guitar out of the spotlight and telling new stories to establish the series’ mythology — even though such aspects were obscured by the technical change.
• Fans have an almost Tourrette-like need to voice their disapproval of the middle period to one another and non-fans alike.
• The recent period — the seventh and eighth studio albums and the seventh film — saw a move away from core approaches (guitar as lead instrument and re-treading old stories).
• Fans have, curiously, thus far lauded the recent periods of both as having righted the wrongs of each middle period despite going in starkly new directions — directions that, in theory, are odd ones to be celebrating.
In both cases, I’m not saying that the middle period (the three studio albums and/or the PT) is better than the rest of the its respective catalogue, but rather that it’s not quite the black sheep that it’s made out to be. Similarly, the partisan back-and-forth that surrounds each is lost on me. (It’s a reason I’m not actively involved in fan club/membership community threads and discussions, though I observe such from afar and in conversation. I just like each for my own enjoyment.) With two more ST films on the way and another DMB studio album in progress, I’m curious to see how each progresses and how the “true fans” will react.
A few thoughts from the homestead on this Fourth of July, which is a rarity these years. One reason is that this is the first summer since 2010 that I haven’t taught abroad, and I’m usually gone by late June. (I much preferred to stay home for some needed family time.) It’s also notable that I’m home because I opted out of two great musical weekends occurring simultaneously: Grateful Dead at Soldier Field and Dave Matthews Band at SPAC. (This weekend is one of our few opportunities to spend a quiet few days at home this summer, and I was a little exhausted by the thought of both musical prospects.) Curiously, this extended weekend brings a number of things full circle in a somewhat solipsistic manner.
This weekend at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the Grateful Dead fare thee well with a three-night run after a half century of trailblazing. I’ve been listening to much of the festivities’ broadcasts on SiriusXM, both of the actual shows and the pre-show coverage. (Friday’s pre-show included a wonderful and unexpected interview with Charles Lloyd, one of my personal favorites.) Seeing The Dead on this night in 2009 (and similarly with Phil Lesh & Friends the summer before) is one of my fondest musical memories. I felt like I really was part of something special. My social media feed this weekend has included a regular stream of updates from folks I know who traveled to the Windy City this weekend. As I wrote here, I’m no Deadhead but I definitely consider myself a fan.
Soldier Field was where the Grateful Dead performed their final shows in 1995 before the dead of Jerry Garcia. Speaking the Dead in 1995, Dave Matthews Band opened for the elders for their three–nightrun in Vegas that May.
Coincidentally, Soldier Field was the location of my first and fourth DMB shows (06.29.00 and 07.06.01, respectively). This is my first time not making the annual pilgrimage to SPAC with my brother-in-law in several years. However, I was pleased to see that DMB very unexpectedly covered Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” during tonight’s acoustic set in honor of the latter’s goodbye run. Classy move.
Fear not, I’ll be seeing DMB this coming Tuesday outside of Detroit for my 65th show, almost fourteen years from the date of my fourth show. (In fact, it’s my first year attending only one DMB concert since I started attending frequenting the band’s concerts, assuming there’s no winter tour.) I doubt they’ll be busting out any Dead covers, but it shall be a great time regardless. Until then, fare thee well, core four. Hopefully I’ll hear a little “Loose Lucy” pop up in a set list before the weekend’s over…
…And I’ve returned because as soon as I clicked “publish,” the Dead started performing “Friend of the Devil” in Chicago. Full circle, indeed. As Robert Hunter wrote, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
Disclaimer 1: Posts on the blog are largely considered drafts, likely for further exploration and sussing out down the road. This is by no means a final, polished work.
Disclaimer 2: I’m diving into the DMB rabbit hole here. (Similar to diving deep into the Wagnerian weeds in past posts.) Be warned.
Fandom can be a curious thing. Like Dr. Venkman’s laundry, it has many subtle levels. It ranges from being a passive fan of an artist or group – appreciating what’s heard on the radio and in friends’ collections, but not seeking out recordings or live performances – to being a fanatic – taking every word and note as gospel, acquiring all memorabilia, and seeking out every performance possible. (These are the “healthy” examples, of course; the dark side of this is of course being the likes of Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Jr., et al.) When it comes to Dave Matthews Band, I consider myself on the healthy and self-controlled/restrained fanatic end of the spectrum. Beyond knowing the catalog, I’m regularly purchasing memorabilia, seeking out live recordings, and have seen them – including offshoots Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds and Dave Matthews & Friends – 64 times throughout the country, from The Gorge in WA to their hometown of Charlottesville, VA. Thankfully for me the group is rarely off the road for long, as I’ve seen them annually since 2000, with 2009 including nine shows. (For what it’s worth, my runner-up of live shows is TOOL at 15.)
[Before the classical music-oriented readers start looking down their nose, consider analogous trends in “art music”: seeking out performances, attending festivals, engaging the literature and scholarship. After all, I’m also a Wagnerian.]
The internet has allowed fan bases to unite and share information easier than at any time before. Fan zines and tape trading has now been replaced with message boards and bit torrents. The hub of this for DMB is AntsMarching.org, the largest fan site dedicated to the band. (The site’s namesake of course being the band’s de facto theme, “Ants Marching.” Ants are DMB’s Deadheads.) With over a couple hundred thousand active members, the site is also an informative source of info about the band and fan community at large, rich with data and news, and hosting hyper-active message boards. It has also evolved into a lobbying arm of sorts, one whose editorial bent I’ve rarely agreed with throughout its run. I love the objective news and rich data, but spare me the opinions. Hence this post’s subtitle of “AntsBitching” – complaining is one thing the site’s operators do quite well. And it’s of course well within their right to do so, but after a while it can provide a rather skewed representation of DMB’s fan community at large.
I’ve been a member since 2003 (I thought earlier, but perhaps I switched accounts), a year after the site’s launch. The site is like ESPN or cable news on overdrive: up-to-the-date info on whatever statistical minutiae you’d like to get your grubby paws on. My profile, which includes a list of all shows (and set lists) I’ve seen, offers some great discussion fodder with other fans. Overall, at the time of this writing, I have seen “64 Dave Matthews Band shows in which 1294 songs were played, an average of 20.22 songs per show. At these 64 shows, there [were] 185 different songs played.” What does that mean? Well, for example, the two songs I’ve seen the most are “Grey Street” and “Two Step” (28 each), the opening song I’ve heard most is “One Sweet World” (6), and my statistically rarest full-band set list is 12.03.05 (likely because of the rare “Christmas Song” coupled with the super-rare “Linus and Lucy” cover). Oh, and my rarity index is 25.32. Go team! I don’t participate in the forums, but I do actively watch the set lists while the band is playing each night of a tour (the songs are posted via the fan site as they’re played). DMB is first and foremost a live band, and one with an immense library of originals and a wide array of strong covers. Which is to say: I still get surprised and excited every show. For example: it took 39 shows for me to finally see the elusive “Halloween,” and 63 to FINALLY see “Pay For What You Get.” My first show opened with my favorite song (“#41”), and then I didn’t hear it again for years (even though it was often played the show before or after I saw them). And I’ve been fortunate enough to see some rarities: “Angel From Montgomery,” “#34,” “Rockin’ In The Free World” (w. Neil Young), the first time of three that they covered “Blackbird,” a show with two “#40” teases and an “Anyone Seen The Bridge” opener, a double encore, and more. Enough of my pedigree. Suffice it to say, one can easily get lost in the wormhole (as I arguably just did).
As you can see, I love the site’s info and find it quite valuable. So what’s my beef? As mentioned, the site’s creative directors try too hard to lobby for this era, that album, and a particular setlist. They take the internal joy of fandom and try to weaponize it into group think-style campaigning via the site and social media. And it’s not like the band and management are completely unaware. After all, Live Trax 16 was selected for release by AntsMarching.org. (If only they’d moved ahead two shows to my first. Oh well, you can hear me cheering on Live Trax 29.) So what’s all the yammering about?
It seems that AntsMarching‘s editorial team is basically out to pretend that the years 2001-7 largely didn’t exist for the band. Supposedly the group lost its way with 2001’s Everyday, 2003’s Busted Stuff, and 2005’s Stand Up, collaborating with different producers and experimenting with different sounds and approaches (e.g., tighter arrangements). While those albums often featured new sounds for the group, I argue that the band’s core approach – a rock band with a lead sax and violin in lieu of a lead guitar – remained intact. Studio albums since 2009 may have featured some more familiar sounds, but since then the band has started to become a rock band with lead guitar, an active horn section, and an occasional fiddle. I’m all for artists evolving as time progresses – look at Miles and Trane – and I think the band sounds great now. However, you can’t sit there and tell me with a straight face that, stylistically, the Dave Matthews Band of 2004 is headed in the “wrong direction” whereas the Dave Matthews Band of 2013/4 is “true to the group’s spirit.” The DMB that’s existed since 2008 is a radically different band than what came before. And I continue to marvel at AntsMarching‘s ongoing crusade against the band’s middle period, which has culminated this summer in the occasional skirmish with band members on social media.
Part of this “misunderstanding” on AntsMarching‘s part, though, is the fact that none of them are musicians. If you want to engage in a sort of music criticism, which they at times do, it doesn’t hold as much weight if you’re not musically inclined or literate. Should they each have to play through Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Absolutely not. But there are so many facets that they neither appreciate nor understand simply because they don’t have a musician’s perspective. For example, in a recent podcast, one of the editors condescended to drummer Carter Beauford’s statement in a 2001 Charlie Rose interview that he felt professional when recording Everyday because he had charts for the music.
How dare he? Well, for Carter Beauford, an in-demand drummer long before DMB existed, I’m sure it did feel nice in the band’s context to enter the studio with professional charts for a recording session. That’s just one small example of the many to choose from. Also, if any of the moderators happen to ever read this, “Fool To Think” is NOT in 7/8. Shame on whomever told you that. The vocabulary word you seek to describe the chorus is “hemiola.” As for setlists and song selections, sometimes musicians just don’t feel like playing particular pieces. And, often times, a piece can be played repeatedly because it’s a good vehicle for improvisation (e.g., “Jimi Thing,” though I agree with Ants that it could be shelved).
Before going further, a brief history to catch newbies up to speed, if interested.
The band’s first three major label releases – Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, Before These Crowded Streets; otherwise known as “The Big 3” – are universally near-mythologized by fans and critically praised. (Even if you don’t like DMB, you can thank BTCS for knocking the Titanic soundtrack from the Billboard #1 spot upon its release.) The producer for all three was the one and only Steve Lillywhite, also known for his work with U2 and The Rolling Stones. While working together on a fourth album, the band and Lillywhite euphemistically “parted ways.” However, the tapes of that album-in-progress were leaked, resulting in what we fans refer to as The Lillywhite Sessions, a wonderful proto-album of great, albeit depressing, songs. Many of the album’s songs, such as the aforementioned “Grey Street,” were played throughout the 2000 summer tour, a tour that was effectively an album release tour for the ultimately abandoned album. 2001 then saw the sudden release of Everyday, an album starkly different in tone and production from both The Lillywhite Sessions as well as much of the band’s earlier material. The band collaborated with producer Glen Ballard, who advocated a tighter, more radio-friendly approach: shorter and more taut arrangements, a sheeny “pop” mix, and Dave playing electric guitar as well as acoustic. This was – and remains for many – a betrayal by the band toward its longtime fans, many of whom adored The Lillywhite Sessions. This “rift” between the fans and the band largely continued through 2003’s Busted Stuff (a largely re-recorded The Lillywhite Sessions produced by Stefon Harris) and 2005’s Stand Up (produced by Mark Batson). 2009’s landmark Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (produced by Rob Cavallo) is considered by many fans to be the album that brought the band “back on course,” with AntsMarching.org declaring that the band finally has a “Big 4” – Big Whiskey… holds up to the mythical first three albums. Similar remarks were made about 2012’s Away From the World, which reunited DMB and producer Steve Lillywhite.
I see and hear it differently, however. While the studio albums in 2001-2005 may have featured a different tone and production quality – tighter arrangements, “poppier” mixes – the band’s overall stylistic formula remained the same: a rock band with no lead guitar but instead a saxophone and violin as lead melodic instruments. Yes, Dave Matthews himself played electric guitar on Everyday and Stand Up (a landmark departure), but it was still in his trademark riff-based style in a largely rhythmic capacity. 2009’s Big Whiskey…, on the other hand, may have included lengthier jams, but the band’s overall style began to change in the studio (although it had already significantly changed live in 2008). This shift was officially signed, sealed, and delivered via Away from the World. I dare say that the mixes and arrangements may have come full circle – lengthier jams and an earthier, more live sound – but DMB can no longer fully claim that they’re a rock band with a sax and violin instead of a lead guitar. As far as new material is concerned, they’re now more of a rock band with a lead guitar, active horn section, and occasional fiddling. This also gradually applies to a chunk of the older catalog. Enter the once-touring-now-de-facto-permanent members Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross, and Jeff Coffin.
Guitarist Tim Reynolds has been a friend and colleague to members of the Dave Matthews Band since before DMB’s inception. A fixture of the Charlottesville music scene, Dave sat in with Tim’s band before forming his own group. Tim regularly toured with the band through the 90s and can be heard all of “The Big 3.” Long considered the unofficial sixth member of the band, his often subtle electric and acoustic guitar work is a fixture of the band’s studio sound. It’s a nuance that doesn’t go unnoticed but avoids the spotlight. He’s not a featured soloist on those first three albums, but rather a rhythm and textural guitarist, occasionally jumping in during larger jams (e.g., the end of “Crush”). While he continued with the occasional acoustic tours and appearances with Dave Matthews, he didn’t tour or record with the band from 2000 through 2007. (During that time, keyboardist Butch Taylor toured with the band and abruptly resigned before the 2008 tour. The band was also often joined by backup singers The Lovely Ladies during the 1998-2001 tours. More on them later.) 2008 saw the return of Tim Reynolds, and he’s since remained a full-time fixture: all tours and studio work. However, the Tim Reynolds that toured with DMB in the 90s is not the one who returned in 2008. Tim 2.0 occasionally provides subtle nuance as before, but he mostly is at the sonic forefront. His electric guitars run rampant throughout tunes old and new:
2009’s “Shake Me Like A Monkey”
Do the above songs sound bad with Timmy? Not at all; in fact, I quite like them. He plays like that on the original studio recording of “Shake Me…,” but he surely doesn’t play like that on either the original studio recording of “Warehouse” or live versions throughout the 90s:
“Warehouse” (w. Tim Reynolds) from Live at Red Rocks 08.15.95:
Trumpeter Rashawn Ross started sitting in with the band on the 2005 summer tour. Then a member of opening act Soulive, he would occasionally guest on a couple songs each night, which is standard practice for DMB. Summer 2006, however, proved different as Ross joined the whole tour, sitting in for not the whole set but gradually more and more. By the time I saw them late in the tour at The Gorge, he was on and off stage throughout the night, and no longer playing solos or occasional backing lines, but rather playing defined parts with saxophonist LeRoi Moore as well as playing on that tour’s new material. For example, 2006’s “Break Free”:
By 2007, it was clear that Rashawn was at least a permanent touring member, at least for the time being, as he wasn’t leaving the stage and he was also assisting with background vocals. For the record, I’m a fan of Rashawn’s playing and what he’s done with DMB. But it can’t be denied that his inclusion ultimately affected the band’s sound. But more than simply playing solos and singing, he and Roi started to functionally become a “horn section” as opposed to a couple of horn soloists, meaning that they starting to become a sub-unit within the band, separate from Boyd’s violin or the rhythm section. It’s worth noting that, apparently, this was something Roi had wanted from the band’s inception. Granted, I’ve heard Dave and Stefan mention this in at least a couple interviews, but enacting it ~15 years in is a noticeable departure. It looked like the band was headed in the direction of a lead guitarless-rock band with a horn section and violin.
Then 2008 happened.
I, along with all other fans, greatly anticipated the 2008 tour, as Reynolds was to re-join the band on the road. I was happy to finally see Tim play with the full band as well as Butch, and then Butch unexpectedly and mysteriously left the band on the eve of the tour. (For reasons that have yet to be confirmed — he apparently remains on good terms with the group.) The tour started off with a bang, with the band playing a slew of new and unexpected covers as well as dusting off a number of rare originals. In the few shows I saw at the beginning of that tour, I thought that both Roi had backed off some solo-wise, with Tim picking up Butch’s piano solos as well as a couple of Roi’s. (The transformation into a defined horn section was nearly complete.) Also, Tim’s guitar was a much larger presence than I – or I think anyone else – had really anticipated. I enjoyed it, but it was certainly a marked departure.
“Cornbread” live at Rothbury Music Festival ’08 — I wasn’t far from the stage…
AntsMarching, however, was simply happy that Tim was back. Outside of some minor observations upon his return, the site’s moderators haven’t really addressed this change.
Also notice the different saxophonist (and music stand) in the above clip. Jeff Coffin, one of my favorite saxophonist long before 2008, jumped aboard when LeRoi Moore was critically injured in an ATV accident, leading to a coma and his eventual death a couple months later. (Eerily, he died in his LA hospital the day that the band was to perform in that same city.) Coffin has since remained with the group and integrated his own playing style into the band’s sound, which was of course different from Roi’s. All of this of course made 2008 a landmark tour. A founding and core member died (and was replaced), Tim Reynolds returned, and that tour’s song selection is considered legendary by the community.
With the next year’s release of Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, the band made a strong statement that it was here to stay. (Even though the future seemed uncertain with Roi’s death.) The new material was STRONG, and the band hasn’t quite disclosed which lines were Roi’s and which were Jeff’s on the studio album, though I have my notions. (Portions were recorded before Moore’s passing.) “Shake Me Like A Monkey” is a good primer for the album, featuring a lead electric guitar, tight horn lines, and somewhat buried fiddle. As much as I love that song, it’s signal as to where the band would go henceforth. Fast forward to 2012 and Away from the World cemented that fact. To me, Away… sounds more like a Dave Matthews solo album than it does a full-band effort much of the time (see “If Only,” “Sweet,” “Mercy,” and “Belly Full”), even though I love it (particularly “Rooftop”).
Throughout this whole process and for reasons unknown to me (though I do have my theories), violinist Boyd Tinsley has fulfilled an increasingly diminished onstage role. While at The Gorge in 2009 or 2010, a friend even turned to me and asked, “Where’s Boyd?” He used to be a prominent and fiery soloist, but now he gets maybe two solos per show, and what solos he gets have occasionally been shortened (e.g., the end of “Seek Up” on this summer’s tour). On top of that, he’s often buried in the mix. I see him up there, but I rarely hear him during full-band moments. Musically and technically, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes. He’s easily become the band’s weak link over the last decade, as he’s obviously rested on his laurels. Personally, given how he’s played the last several years, I’m not lonely for his playing. And that’s truly a shame, because he has been known to rip it in the past…
So, an increased and prominent lead guitar role, a soloistic saxophone turned horn section, and a once-soloistic violin is now, arguably, a glorified member of the rhythm section.
Now what does all of this have to do with AntsBitching? Well, as mentioned, depending on what podcast you’re listening to or article you’re reading, Big Whiskey… and Away…each can be held up alongside “The Big 3.” That, together with the site’s blind faith in all things Tim, Rashawn (and now Jeff, after a trial period), and Lillywhite Sessions, as well as the editors’ (and subsequently many other fans’) core disdain for Everyday,Stand Up, setlists, and Lovely Ladies, leads to a toxic, partisan approach to the band, particularly on this just-finished 2014 Summer Tour. AntsMarching and its allies want the band to feature its supposed “classic” or “authentic” sound or approach that, so far as I can tell, is anything the band did during the years 1991-2000 and 2008-present (with the exception of 2006’s “Shotgun,” a song fetishized by the site’s editors). However, the band sounds far different in 2008-14 than it did during the first ten years.
Finally (hopefully), I mentioned that this one-sided tension between AntsMarching and DMB had culminated this summer into a couple skirmishes with band members. It did so over a relatively unexpected topic, that of The Lovely Ladies, who unexpectedly returned to performing occasional sets with the band throughout this summer after a 13-year break. I didn’t see them this round, but I saw them during a few shows in 2000 and 2001. Ants moderators and allies quickly and ferociously rallied to get them to stop appearing with the band through the tour for various reasons. I believe that one main reason was for the association of the Ladies with the Everyday material, particularly the marathon renditions of “Angel” from 2001 (even though they’re a result of “Stay (Wasting Time)” from Before These Crowded Streets and oldie “#36”). Even though the Ladies didn’t help bring back the Everyday songs, these “fans” went ballistic and got both bassist Stefan Lessard and trumpeter Rashawn Ross to engage on Twitter, both of whom deleted “impolite” tweets afterwards.
What concerns me most is not this debate over backup singers, but rather the aggressive lashing out because the “fans” seem to know what’s best for the group, especially when there’s no consensus. It’s hard to really tell what the majority of total fans is on a given topic, but Ants and social media have now enabled the vocal and active (possible minority of) fans to act as a mouthpiece for the fan base at large, which is unfortunate. Ladies aside, it’s this odd, almost nonsensical battle over “authenticity” of eras that’s led to such partisanship and division, which ultimately begs the question What makes a fan?
Is a fan someone who blindly follows an artist or group? Meh, that’s one way of looking at it. DMB has done a number of things I dislike (e.g., not kicking Boyd in the ass). And, speaking of setlist complaints, there are a number of songs I’d be fine to never hear again live, such as “All Along The Watchtower,” “Everyday,” “Satellite,” and I agree with Ants that “Jimi Thing” could be given a rest. (The two Boyd solos in “Jimi Thing” are difficult for me these days.) But I know that I can’t wish them away, and I’m not going to pummel the band with requests. I still go to shows every tour, and I don’t have a bad time if one of the aforementioned tunes are played. And yes, I chase songs as much as the next fan, but I’m still enjoying myself in the moment. Not out of some misguided blind faith, but rather because it’s a great band that continues to deliver (yes, some shows are better than others) night after night, year after year. I understand that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. But does than mean to commit a coup d’état whenever one doesn’t get his or her way? Most AntsMarchingPodcast episodes, you’d be surprised to know that editors Matt and Jake actually like the band, since they mostly just complain about how awful various shows and set lists they’ve seen.
Do I have an answer? Of course not, other than perhaps to tone things down a bit. There has to be some sort of happy medium between blind faith (which is abhorrent) and “the customer (fan) is always right.” To quote the great and wise Larry David, “In fact, the customer is usually a moron and an asshole.”
The Larry David quote is of course humorous and a bit much, but he has a point. No, I wouldn’t be happy if the band “played the phonebook” (a DMB community meme this summer), and I’ve never thought that. But I’m not about to let the perfect be the enemy of the good either.
As mentioned in my previous post, this last week marked the fifth anniversary of LeRoi Moore’s death. To mark both this and the return of the video series after the summer hiatus, it’s only fitting that I highlight a few choice moments here. Believe me, it’s difficult to select only a handful out of the many favorites.
“Sugar Will” is one of the handful of then new songs debuted on the 2004 summer tour. Only one of which, “Hello Again,” was ultimately given a studio release. However, “Sugar Will” and “Crazy Easy” were my favorites of that group (which also includes “Joy Ride,” featured here). Here’s Roi getting down on “Sugar Will” at The Gorge on 09.03.04, one I regularly return to:
“Stand Up” isn’t a song that gets a lot of love. This particular solo isn’t anything profound but it always gets me moving without fail. The video is taken from the bonus DVD in the Weekend on the Rocks box set (from the 2005 run at Red Rocks Ampitheater, with this song coming from 09.11.05). And Roi’s lick at 3:41 is a treat:
Here’s a charming cover of the country ballad “Long Black Veil” by Dave Matthews and LeRoi. For this video, someone synced their home footage with the audio from the official Gorge box set release. (Good move.)