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Dave Matthews Band in 2018: ‘Come Tomorrow’, Tour, and More

It’s now been a decade since saxophonist LeRoi Moore‘s passing. Thinking of that this past weekend has pushed me to finally jot down some thoughts on the band as a whole, and how 2018 has seen DMB fully realize what, in my opinion, it has been inching toward for well over a decade. While LeRoi’s passing didn’t kick-start this evolution, it arguably accelerated it to a degree. And, given that it was such a (tragic) milestone in the band’s history, it’s natural that it played at least some sort of factor, even if not as large as one as may initially seem.

Equally noteworthy, at a minimum, in the band’s evolution was the 2008 tour itself, which of course coincided with Moore’s accident and subsequent death and Jeff Coffin‘s joining the band partway through as a replacement. Even before Moore’s accident, the 2008 tour included:
– Tim Reynolds’s return as a touring member and, though unknown at the time, a full-time member in his own right. (In years past he was an “unofficial sixth member,” along with Peter Griesar from the early 90s and Butch Taylor in the late 90s through 2007.)
– Butch Taylor’s sudden departure on the tour’s eve.
– An explosion of cover songs in rotation in the set list (e.g., “Money,” “Money, That’s What I Want,” “Sledgehammer,” “Burning Down the House,” etc.).
Some Devil songs regularly joining the setlist rotation.
(- Jeff Coffin eventually joining the band partway through the tour after Moore’s accident.)

I won’t re-hash old posts here, but a brief word on each of those points. I’ve written about this before, but Tim Reynolds’s guitar stylings while playing with the full band ’91-’98 are vastly different from ’08-present. (This is entirely separate from his playing with Dave on their acoustic tours, which continued throughout this whole time period, including the early ’00s.) In that first decade, even though he played electric guitar with a mostly acoustic ensemble, his playing fit within the band’s overall sound—part of the texture, often felt instead of heard. Upon his return, however, he cranked up the volume and gave the band a much more explicitly “rock” sound, and his presence couldn’t be mistaken.

Tim’s approach strongly complemented the new cover songs that debuted in 2008, both in style and arrangement: “Money” (Pink Floyd), “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel), “Burning Down the House” (Talking Heads), “Hey Hey My My” (Neil Young), “Money, That’s What I Want” (Berry Gordy & Janie Bradford), “Bitch” (Rolling Stones), and “Thank You” (Sly & The Family Stone; formerly covered by Dave Matthews & Friends but not by DMB). Also noteworthy is that most of these cover songs lack a non-guitar solo (like the original), save “Money.” I write “style and arrangement” because these covers, unlike their most well-known previous covers performed with varying regularity (“All Along the Watchtower,” “The Maker,” “Long Black Veil,” “Angel From Montgomery”), were pretty straightforward. 2008’s then-new covers were less about being new versions of existing songs than they were with creating a fun vibe to add to the party-like atmosphere. Those that remain in 2018—e.g., “Sledgehammer” and “Burning Down the House”—haven’t much changed in arrangement over the last decade.

Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect at work here. Did the band’s approach to covers at all influence Tim’s approach to DMB’s catalogue—the prominent lead guitar needed for Pink Floyd then being mapped to Dave Matthews Band? Hard to say, but I’ve always wondered. After all, it’d be a little jarring to hear the DMB of 2007 or 2000 and then, midway through the set, be blasted by “Sledgehammer.” Even though Dave began selectively playing electric guitar live in 2001, “Eh Hee” or “So Right” didn’t provide the same wailing lead guitar as Pink Floyd’s “Money.”

Of course, it could be that Dave took the reins a little more aggressively and decided that that’s the sound he wanted…

In the past, it’s been noted here and there that the band—or at least select band members—had been pushing Dave to take up some more directional leadership within the group. Around the Lillywhite Sessions fallout and Everyday sessions, I got the impression in interviews that the band was going through the motions and rudderless (before Everyday), and that going into the studio for Everyday with Dave having already written much of the music with producer Glenn Ballard and providing charts to the band put some fresh wind under the band’s wings. And again, before LeRoi’s death, supposedly LeRoi told Dave in a moment of candor that he (Matthews) needed to lead the band and take charge.

Then there was the sudden departure of Butch Taylor for “personal reasons” right before the 2008 tour’s kickoff. It was never made publicly clear why he backed out, but speculation ran wild on message boards.* I felt like I was in the minority much of the time, but I was and remain a big fan of Butch Taylor’s playing, both with and without DMB. Even though I was gaining Tim Reynolds in 2008, it hurt to lose Butch Taylor. Perhaps Tim’s playing was a way to account for both electric guitar and a lost keyboardist? Who knows.

[*I try to avoid message boards—on DMB and anything else—completely, but this was one of 4 times I dove in to that toxic fever swamp as a reader-only for DMB material. The other three were this year: Boyd’s departure, Boyd’s #MeToo moment, and the 2018 tour kickoff. Every time I left exhausted and needing a shower. Woof. No more.]

[A digression, just to state this for the record: one of my first selfish thoughts upon learning of the possibility of both Tim Reynolds and Butch Taylor touring with DMB in 2008 (before Taylor’s departure) was the genesis and rapid blossoming of my wanting to see what would, for me, be the ultimate cover song that DMB could rip through: Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” Piano-driven rock with a strong lead guitar line, and the horns could provide some solid wall-of-sound harmonies throughout. My hopeless wishing was renewed this summer with the addition of Buddy Strong, but I’m certainly not holding my breath. (While I’m at it, EJ’s “My Father’s Gun” and “Burn Down the Mission” too, and both would be great with The Lovely Ladies…)]

With a few sporadic and rare exceptions, much of Dave Matthews’s solo album Some Devil wasn’t performed with the full band until 2008. And it didn’t take long for those solo songs to find a natural home in the DMB rotation, particularly “So Damn Lucky” and “Gravedigger.” The former quickly transformed early in the tour—the iterations I saw in Chicago (6/6), Detroit (6/9), and Buffalo (6/17) kept getting respectively longer, inching toward the large live jam it became by mid-summer.

Finally, of course, Jeff Coffin joined the band (becoming a full-time, permanent replacement), filling in for LeRoi Moore. I attended Jeff’s fourth show of that run (Rothbury 7/5/08), and it was wild seeing him up there with the music stand for the horn lines and then ripping during the solos. The latter part is notable in the respect that, before his accident, LeRoi Moore seemed to be playing fewer and/or shorter solos at the beginning of the tour, either splitting those duties even more with trumpeter Rashawn Ross or handing some over to Tim Reynolds. (I was particularly struck by his lack of solo on “#41” on 6/17, but those backing horn lines under Tim’s solo scratched me where I itched.) I knew there was talk throughout the band’s history of Roi’s wanting to eventually develop a full horn section. It took ~15 years to add a second horn, and the workload gradually evened out over the subsequent years, with Rashawn regularly guesting in the latter half of 2005, becoming a full-time touring member in 2006. Perhaps with Tim’s returning to the fold, Roi considered it an opportunity to build up the horn section as an entity? It’s another thought I’ve returned to many times over the years.

Along with Jeff’s solos, though, there’s another aspect that caught my eye. With now three virtuosic soloists (Jeff Coffin, Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross) hungry to play and make music with one another, what was violinist Boyd Tinsley to do? Continue with the same old tired and out-of-tune pentatonic scales and lukewarm enthusiasm save his one or two nightly solos? Again, it was around this time that my friend turned to me at the Gorge and remarked, “Where’s Boyd?” Even in 2007, though he was already a musical liability, there was still room sonically for Boyd’s melodies, countermelodies, and solos. In 2008, there was significantly less, with even less each subsequent year.

That was 2008. En route to 2018…

Beyond “new” members, the other original members kept on making music and advancing. Bassist Stefan Lessard particularly comes to mind, having pursued some Berklee College of Music coursework some years back. (I believe he was inspired by Rashawn Ross, an alumnus.) I remember thinking of the Rashawn/Berklee inspiration at night three of The Gorge in 2011 when Stefan opted to play the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite I for unaccompanied cello as the intro to “All Along the Watchtower,” with Jeff and Rashawn watching with particularly rapt attention. That, and Stefan’s penchant for effects and hardware seems to have grown since Tim’s re-joining in ’08.

I’ve documented much of my thoughts many of the band’s developments elsewhere (here and here and here). In short, Tim gradually became a gargantuan sonic presence, Boyd became obviously irrelevant, the horn section evolved and became often a single entity, and the new songs reflected all of these changes. The band that originally went from local Charlottesville phenomenon to commercial juggernaut—the mostly acoustic band with no lead guitar and a sax and fiddle—became a full-on rock band with horns, especially from 2008 to this year. Enter Come Tomorrow, which completed the process.

I won’t write a full review of the album here, but it’s worth at least a surface-level discussion. In short, my thoughts after the first listen were:
– I liked it overall, despite “The Girl Is You.”
– As an album, it’s a bit of an odd entity.
– In context, the transformation was now complete.

I do like the album, and I’ve listened to it a lot this summer. But, to me, even more than Away From the World, Come Tomorrow is almost more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. Almost. The identifiable horns are still there, and it helps that it includes some existing songs—including 2006’s “Idea Of You” and “Can’t Stop” and 2015’s “Virginia In The Rain,” “Black and Blue Bird,” “Again and Again” (formerly “Boblaw”—my personal favorite of the album), and “Be Yourself” (now “bkdkdkdd”). Boyd plays on only one track, “Idea Of You,” and it’s likely that his part was recorded years ago. And there’s only one horn solo on the whole album, a few seconds of Coffin’s soprano saxophone on “Black and Blue Bird”—track 10, deep into the album.

I consider it an “odd entity” because not only are some of the songs older, but the album was recorded over a ~12-year+ period and utilized four separate producers (Mark Batson, Rob Cavallo, John Alagia, and Rob Evans). The album’s not as cohesive a unit as others in my opinion, as it goes in many different directions, and the lack of a single producer keeps it from feeling completely unified, at least sonically. That said, it still mostly works, and it’s a rocking good time.

All that said, I like the album (save “The Girl Is You,” which is okay live—it’s the first studio recording I’ve yet to warm to in some respect), and to me it fits in the overall canon. Hell, even LeRoi Moore makes a couple of appearances, having participated in the early sessions for “Can’t Stop” and “Idea of You.” But it’s definitely a statement that this is a band unapologetically plowing ahead with its current iteration, be it DMB 3.0 or 4.0 depending on whom you ask. Whereas 2012’s Away From the World had a veneer of going back to the square one after 2009’s sonic memorial Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King—having Steve Lillywhite produce, including horn and violin solos (Boyd gets the album’s first solo break!), etc.—to me, it still sounded like more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. In fact, I could make the case that Come Tomorrow is as big of a statement about the band’s sound, if not bigger, than Everyday was in 2001. (In brief, just because Dave played electric, the sax and violin still carried the melodic weight, among other aspects. It sounded new, but the structure remained the same. Here, however, the structure is explicitly changed.)

[Song selection aside, the album’s personnel dwarfs Before These Crowded Streets and covers a wide berth: both Butch Taylor and Buddy Strong on keys, the Lovely Ladies (Tawatha Agee, Candice Anderson, Sharon Bryant-Gallwey), and a panoply of auxiliary musicians including some notable names, including the one and only Luis Conte on percussion.]

With Come Tomorrow, however, it’s as if Dave made the decision to stand proud and say “this is who we are now, and we’re happy with it.” And, as far as I can tell, the band agrees and is equally enthusiastic. In fact, the best way I can really describe it is that I see 2018’s DMB as meaning Dave Matthews’s Band instead of (the) Dave Matthews Band. While still a group effort, I get the impression that Dave is more comfortable providing some sort of direction than in the past. Something I’ve noticed in interviews this summer is that he regularly refers to “my band.” While not the first time he’s said it, I didn’t notice that as much in the past. (Perhaps he said it often and it didn’t catch my attention.) And that’s not to say it’s meant at all negatively. Not at all. But it’s different from “our band” or “the band.”

On another personnel-related note, he did finally directly address Boyd Tinsley’s departure in a recent interview on iHeartRadio’s Inside the Studio podcast. In short, he admits to firing Tinsley for not pulling his weight, and that it was a long time coming. (And after the subsequent sexual harassment allegations against Tinsley, I doubt Boyd will be returning anytime soon…)

This may seem like a recipe for a real mixed bag on stage: one near-founding member gone, Dave taking control, and the addition of a new touring member (and what I assume to be full-time member) in keyboardist Buddy Strong. But after seeing three shows on this summer’s tour and listening to others in addition to it, I can safely say two things about Dave Matthews Band in 2018:
– This is the BEST the band has sounded live in AT LEAST a decade, if not more.
– It’s obvious that the band members are having a lot of fun playing together this year.

As an ensemble, the band sounds great. Not once during any of the shows I attended did I remotely miss Boyd’s playing or any of his musical parts. Beyond that, Buddy Strong fits nicely into the band—always felt, even if not explicitly heard. And Tim Reynolds has dialed back the sonic onslaught. He still shreds when required, but when he’s playing rhythm guitar it’s in the background, which wasn’t always the case in recent years. It’s a nice mix of ’90s Tim and early ’10s Tim.

As a quick example regarding much of what’s mentioned above, take DMB’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” one version from 2008 and another from this summer (where I was dancing in the audience).

2008’s “Sledgehammer” with overpowering electric guitar and a superfluous Tinsley at Mile High Music Festival:

2018’s “Sledgehammer” at SPAC:

What’s more, the band members are having fun. I’ve heard Dave say as much onstage and in interviews more times this summer than I have in probably the last decade combined. Not that they’ve been dourly going through the motions in years past. But between cutting loose the dead weight (Boyd Tinsley), bringing in some fresh blood with Buddy Strong, and the focus and clarity involved with incorporating the new album’s songs and arrangements into the rotation, it’s a recipe for success that has worked swimmingly this year.

The onstage enthusiasm around Strong is palpable and reminiscent of that around Jeff Coffin’s joining (despite the tragic consequences that caused it), and also that of Rashawn Ross.

As with any change, there are members of the fan community griping about Strong’s addition, Tinsley’s departure, the band’s sound, etc. I have copious thoughts on those complaints, but it’s not worth wasting the time on it here. Suffice it to say that there’s only one direction to go: forward. Miles Davis wasn’t playing “Autumn Leaves” and “Four” in the seventies and eighties; John Coltrane eventually stopped playing “Blue Train”; and Radiohead likely won’t be playing Pablo Honey front-to-back anytime soon. Artists will grow and evolve, for the better or worse. I’m pleased with where things are headed musically with DMB in 2018 and beyond. While Come Tomorrow won’t knock Crash off its pedestal anytime soon, what it signals is certainly reassuring to this longtime fan.

Boyd Tinsley Stepping Away from Dave Matthews Band: A Natural Progression

Boyd Tinsley is stepping back from Dave Matthews Band. The violinist, backing vocalist, and near-founding member and his fiddle are part of the band’s trademark image and (original) sound.

Not much is known, as it was announced by Tinsley himself in a short and somewhat cryptic series of tweets Friday night:

Oddly, as of the time of this posting (midday Saturday, the day after) there’s been no announcement from DMB as a whole or management.*

I certainly have my own ideas, and my own reactions. Selfishly, I’m pleased. Very much so. A quick survey of social media confirms my feeling that I’m in the smallest of minorities among the die-hard fanbase. As I wrote here, Tinsley has been fulfilling an increasingly diminished role onstage—and even on record—for well over a decade. As I wrote in 2014:

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…

In the years since, this has become even more apparent. Aside from one or two minutes-long solos over the course of a three-hour show, Tinsley largely stands off to the side or plays superfluous parts that can rarely be heard in the mix. And that’s not a bad thing, as he’s sounded bad for years. Out of tune and just generally “off.” Even with the vocals. For example, he couldn’t be bothered to nail his few words of rhyme—his only “lead” vocal part of the evening—on “I Did It” during this rendition at The Gorge in 2010:

Woof. I was in the audience and was embarrassed for him. I saw him try again a few days later in Houston. (If I remember correctly, a roadie scrambled out and taped the lyrics to his monitor beforehand.) While he recovered overall, Dave helped him with a cue at the beginning and he still barely finished in time:

Out of sentimental nostalgia, I do find it genuinely sad. One founding member died in 2008, and now another leaves in 2018. It’s certainly not the same unit I fell in love with in ’96. That said, the current band is certainly not the same ensemble musically or aesthetically as it was in 2008 or 1998 or 1994. I’ve gone through that elsewhere and don’t have the time to rehash those reasons now.

In short, though, this is just the next step in the natural evolution of this band. What began as an acoustic-based rock band with saxophone and fiddle and no lead guitar has become an electrified rock band with a defined horn section and occasional auxiliary fiddle. If continuing along that course, it was only a matter of time until the violin was completely jettisoned. With Away From the World being more of a Dave Matthews record than a Dave Matthews Band record, and new songs since having little functional need for a melodic violin lead, this isn’t out of left field.

One of my immediate reactions was that I didn’t purchase enough tickets for this summer. I’m already going to Buffalo, Toronto, and two nights of Saratoga. Now I feel like I should hit Cleveland too. Perhaps I’m being too bullish, but with the band’s weak link gone, I’m confident that the group will sound the best it has in years.

I wonder how this aligns with the impending album that’s due out this year. Is Boyd on it? If so, how much? Apparently he was greatly diminished in the 2018 calendar that was sent out to some weeks back. (I didn’t opt for one, but read about it today.)

The announcement itself and manner in which it was done is shocking, but the departure isn’t. Again, I don’t know the specific reason for Tinsley leaving in early 2018. I thought it’d eventually happen, but was clueless as to how or when. Tinsley’s announcement implied needing a break for health and family reasons, and just needing a break. Of course, if that’s the case, why did he spend all of 2017 touring with and promoting his other band Crystal Garden while DMB took the year off? One thought I had was that Tinsley has been swept up in the #MeToo fiasco. (Pure speculation on my part…I’m not basing that on anything or making an accusation.) Or maybe he was outright fired by the band as a whole. That certainly wouldn’t be unjustified if so. (I’ve often thought during a show, How does everyone else on stage feel about Boyd getting paid the same for doing so little?.)

Anyway, murkiness abounds. I won’t go on and on with the speculations. I’m just here to say that if Tinsley is indeed gone, I—a die-hard fan with over two decades of investment into the band and its music—welcome it. (The tour won’t start for months. Perhaps he’ll come back into the fold beforehand.) The band will sound great. Well, the band already sounds great. But now the weak link is gone. No ho-hum few minutes of out-of-tune pentatonic scales. Just solid, steady jams all around.

I’m sure that this comes off as much more negative overall than it really is. I have many great memories of Tinsley’s playing, and solos and songs that I love to listen to over and over. In fact, Tinsley is one of the reasons that Listener Supported is my favorite live album—fine fiddle solos and melodies, and a solid rendition of “True Reflections.” But that was recorded in 1999, and he’s not been bringing much to the table for years. And if the band is to continue progressing, I don’t see how Tinsley’s involved without some serious time in the woodshed.

Bring on the tour. I’m ready.

 


*UPDATE: Of course, within a half hour of my posting this, the band releases an official statement. However, it does as much to raise questions as it does to answer them:

Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash’ at 20

Dave Matthews Band’s Crash turned twenty on April 30, 2016.

dmb crash

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…

Fandom and Partisanship II: Under the Empire and Dreaming

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.

Faring Well

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 threenight run 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.”