It’s been more than two decades since Dave Matthews Band emerged from Charlottesville and forever altered the pop-rock landscape with rootsy jams highlighted by the juxtaposition of fiddle and sax. While small gigs at Trax and frat parties were the launch pad, the band belongs to the rest of the world now—with 37 million albums sold across the globe and more tickets moved than any other artist of the past decade. Since the opening of the John Paul Jones Arena, though, the band has been making it a point to bring it back to where it all began. DMB returns to the venue for two shows this weekend on Friday and Saturday (at press time tickets still remained for Friday). Whether or not you consider yourself one of the band’s devout disciples, here are five reasons to catch the hometown heroes.
Back in September the band released Away from the World, its first new album in three years. It marked the DMB’s record-setting sixth number one debut album in a row on the Billboard charts, but more creatively significant, the effort reunited the group with producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel), who helmed DMB’s first three major label albums Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, and Before These Crowded Streets.
While 2009’s Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King was a powerfully emotional tribute to late founding band member Leroi Moore, who passed away in 2008, the latest album brings the band back to some of the free-wheel jamming of the early days. The album’s last two tracks, “Snow Outside” and “Drunken Soldier,” which are attributed in the writing credits to all of the band’s now-seven touring members, feature soaring collective grooves that signify the current line-up is now collaborating in lockstep. The latter tune is a multi-part epic that clocks in at over nine minutes, starting with some playful freeform improv, before peaking with a patented growling Matthews chorus and finishing with a sly, breezy outro.
Lyrically, Matthews also has recovered much of his mojo. There certainly seems to have been an introspective reboot since the superficial sap of 2005’s Stand Up, as these days a world-weary 45-year-old Dave is pondering age, apathy, and fatherhood. In “The Riff” he sings, “Funny how time slips away, looking at the cracks creeping across my face,” before imagining himself trapped in his own coffin. Gone is the good-time stoner philosophizing of the early years (“Jimi Thing,” “Tripping Billies”). Now Matthews can find depth in giving one of his kids swimming lessons, recalled in the ukulele-and-falsetto-driven “Sweet.” Fortunately, though, getting older hasn’t curtailed Matthews’ occasional urge to be an unabashed horn dog, evidenced on the libido-lead, room-shaking funk number “Belly Belly Nice.” Many of these tunes have been put in regular rotation for the first time on the current winter tour.
The shows this weekend will be the band’s seventh and eighth appearances at the John Paul Jones Arena. With three previous two-night stands since the arena opened back in 2006, the home stand has become a group tradition, and in accordance the shows have become celebratory throw downs. They’ve also become destination gigs for hardcore fans, looking to see the band members play just down the road from where they first formed back in the early ’90s. Many a traveling diehard can be spotted congregating at Miller’s before lunchtime on the show days, slugging brews and soaking in the lore of the local watering hold that incubated the band.
DMB’s last show in town on November 20, 2010, was a particular barnburner, as it was set to be the group’s final gig before an extended hiatus the following year. (Plans changed, and the group ended up hosting four multi-band mini-festivals across the country.) The show dipped into every area of the band’s repertoire from the rarely revisited country ballad “Long Black Veil” to a near-20-minute extension of the latter-era “Lying in the Hands of God.” By night’s end, the show had clocked in at just shy of four hours, and many fans on message boards declared it the longest performance in DMB history.
This is a different band than the scrappy quintet that won over crowds at Trax back in the day and gradually built their way towards big stages around the world. With seven full-time touring members, the current incarnation of DMB has a much more muscular, multi-dimensional sound. In addition to the remaining core four of Matthews, bassist Stefan Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford, and violinist Boyd Tinsley, longtime collaborator and ace guitarist Tim Reynolds, best known for his work on early DMB studio albums and his acoustic duo shows with Matthews, now has a permanent spot on the roster. While during the acoustic shows he often overindulges in lengthy solos, Reynolds is largely used by the band to fill holes with swirling nimble-fingered runs and drive grooves with chunky electric riffs, often mimicking Matthews’ percussive rhythmic guitar work with complimentary distorted grit.
The void felt by the loss of Moore was undoubtedly much harder to replace—both an absence of musical voice and distinct presence in the band’s former five-headed personality. The solution became a two-piece horn section, which includes stalwart funk session trumpeter Rashawn Ross, whose resume boasts work with The Fugees, Maceo Parker and Stevie Wonder. Standing next to him is versatile sax man Jeff Coffin, who cut his chops for more than a decade exploring improvisational acrobatics as a member of jazz-fusion masters Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The combo has added a powerful punch with soulful vigor to the brass side of the stage, a dynamic counterpoint to Tinsley’s energetic fiddle freakouts.
Old school jam sessions
DMB’s recent past shows at John Paul Jones Arena have yielded some on-stage reunions with familiar faces on the local music scene. During the second night of the two-night run in April 2009, trumpet wiz John D’earth showed up to jam on four tunes, including a reprised early version of old school fan favorite “Recently.” D’earth appeared on some of the band’s first recordings, and from the stage at the April show Matthews told a story about showing the lauded brass man some of the first songs he had written two decades prior.
Also, on the second night of the band’s November 2010 show stretch, longtime local guitar fixture Joe Lawlor, who works as the band’s live recording engineer, took the stage and delivered a scorching solo during “Rhyme and Reason.”
In “Gaucho,” a standout, serious-brow track from the band’s new album, the chorus declares, “We gotta do much more than believe if we want to see the world change.”
It’s no secret that selling 18 million tickets worldwide since inception results in deep pockets, and through the years the band has been admirably generous with its earnings. Less than two weeks ago, the group used its winter tour opener at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, as a benefit for Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. The band pledged $1 million to the cause and through its Bama Works Fund nonprofit funneled all proceeds from the show—both tickets sales and merchandise—to the Community Foundation of New Jersey. Since forming in 1999, Bama Works has also had significant local impact. Through the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, the organization has given over 800 grants worth more than $15 million to a lengthy list of programs and nonprofits in the immediate area—ranging from the Blue Ridge Area Food bank and Boys & Girls Club of Central Virginia to the Piedmont Housing Alliance and Wintergreen Adaptive Skiing.
Don’t miss the opener
Since DMB made the leap to headlining amphitheaters and arenas in the latter half of the ’90s, the group has impressively never been skimpy when it comes to bringing along quality opening acts. This upcoming run is no exception. Based out of Denver, Colorado, The Lumineers have spent much of the past year criss-crossing the country in front of sold out crowds, delivering high-energy live shows that blend acoustic-driven folk-rock with primal emotion. The band falls in line with the heartfelt, rough-around-the edges roots revival being spearheaded by The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, specializing in infectiously melodic sing-along tunes, like the viral hit “Ho Hey” from their self-titled debut album that came out back in the spring. The Lumineers played the nTelos Wireless Pavilion back in August, opening for and nearly upstaging headliners Old Crow Medicine Show. Dave fans would be wise to resist shot-gunning that last Natty Light can in the parking lot in favor of getting inside in time to catch the opening set.