I’ve seen a handful of really good concerts, but only a few times have I really been in the presence of musical greatness. In terms of songwriting, I would put Switchfoot in that category, and Nickel Creek would make it both on both lyrics and instrumental proficiency.
Dave Matthews Band certainly would fit that billing, with Matthews a world-class songwriter and good vocalist (if a bit rough around the edges nowadays). Carter Beauford has no match behind a drum set, and there are few bands that put together such great individual musicians as Stefan Lessard, Boyd Tinsley, LeRoi Moore, Rashawn Ross, and Tim Reynolds to make a sound that is both instantly accessible and rewarding upon repeated listening. While I’m no music expert, I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too much saying all of that.
This weekend, I finally got the chance to see one of DMB’s famed live shows, at Autozone Park in Memphis. While the advent of YouTube and live DVDs had me knowing what to expect, I was still pretty much blown away. Here’s what they played, if you’re curious:
Don’t Drink the Water *
Old Dirt Hill *
Eh Hee *
Tripping Billies *
The Song That Jane Likes *
Drive In Drive Out *
Burning Down The House *
So Damn Lucky *
Crash Into Me *
Corn Bread *
Where Are You Going
Smooth Rider *
Louisiana Bayou *
Anyone Seen The Bridge *
Too Much Intro *
Ants Marching *
Send good thoughts for LeRoi
* Jeff Coffin
+ Willie Nelson
~ No Horns, Dave on piano
Longtime keyboard playing-live fixture Butch Taylor left the band earlier this year, and saxophonist LeRoi Moore was in an ATV accident that has kept him off the road for the last month or so; thus, the band had Jeff Coffin from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to replace Moore, and DMB friend Tim Reynolds joined in as part of the live act. I think they may consider trumpet player Rashawn Ross a part of the main band at this point, and he was there too.
Willie Nelson was the show’s opener, and he was kind of entertaining on his own (“On The Road Again” was one of my dad’s favorites for his cassette mixtapes), but his is not really my style of music. Nelson came back out to sing on “Gravedigger,” which was outstanding.
“Don’t Drink The Water” is my favorite pick to open a DMB set, so I was especially pleased with that choice to lead off. One of the great things about DMB’s live show is the screen behind the set, a transparent kind of screen that shows the same kind of thing you might usually see if they had a big screen on each side of the set. With the screen behind them, though, it’s easy to focus on the stage itself and not lose track of what’s going on while watching the screen behind them. For songs like “Don’t Drink the Water,” they showed some footage from the song’s original music video. It’s a pretty dark song, but I love it.
From there, the band went into a set of newer material, with “Eh Hee” and the Water/Wine jam not having been released on a full album yet (EDIT: So the Water/Wine jam isn’t new, just new to me. That DMB Almanac site is awesome, by the way). Dave preceded “Old Dirt Hill” by saying it wasn’t about him, although the vivid imagery of the song makes you think it certainly could have been (I can see him “smoking under the railroad bridge,” for sure).
“Tripping Billies,” like most of their upbeat songs, was great live. With “Gravedigger” in between, that was part of a section including some older songs like “The Song That Jane Likes.” “Burning Down The House” was an entertaining cover of the Talking Heads’ original, with Rashawn singing lead. #41 gave just about everyone a chance to take a solo, and I believe it’s been a concert staple for quite a while. “Crash Into Me” of course got everyone involved, and I love that he threw in his occasional extra line: “I will be your Dixie chicken if you’ll be my Tennessee lamb, and we will walk together down in Dixie land…” Certainly fitting for a concert in Memphis.
“Cornbread” is a great new song for a jam, and everyone again got the chance to shine. I like that one rhythmically, and it will be interesting to see what happens if they record that one in the studio. They played another cover after that one, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” which Dave simply introduced as a “love song.” Indeed.
The choice of “Where Are You Going?” was a bit odd for a live set, but it’s still a pretty good song. “Smooth Rider” was decent live, but of course there were older songs I knew I wasn’t going to hear because they were playing songs like that one. “What Would You Say?” and “Satellite” make only occasional appearances in their sets these days, and both would be absent from this one.
Even without Robert Randolph, “Louisiana Bayou” is a great live song. Boyd took that one over, and I love the conclusion they do when they play it live. “Two Step” is kind of a curious choice for a set closer unless you’ve seen what they can do with it live. It’s a fairly subdued song on Crash, but it gives the band plenty of room to move with the changes and take solos. Reynolds was spectacular on guitar here; I hadn’t been familiar with him, aside from knowing he’d recorded an album with Dave before, but watching him live was pretty special.
I don’t know if DMB plans their encores, but they have a tendency to play a song like “Sister,” a softer original from Dave, and then a higher-powered song like “Ants Marching,” which is my favorite DMB song. They teased us by playing their usual live intro to “Too Much,” even going so far as to play the full opening line of the song before starting into the “Ants Marching” drum intro. I wasn’t particularly disappointed, since I got to see several more of my favorites than I normally would have expected.
All in all, it was about as satisfying as I can imagine a live concert being. Regardless of your thoughts on DMB, I think it’s pretty easy to enjoy a band that obviously enjoys playing music. Carter Beauford’s endlessly beaming smile is the most apparent example, but all of the guys seem to have a great time, even on a hot, sticky August night in Memphis. They certainly don’t need to play for a paycheck anymore, but their live experience is good enough that they will be able to earn their keep by playing for many years to come.