All Points Bulletin – Dispatch
Universal Music Group 367610
In certain respects, Dispatch was the ultimate college band. Since forming at Middlebury close to ten years ago, the organic-pop trio helped define independent music for a generation of budding music fans, many of whom are just now reaching the legal drinking age. Offering a blend of several dorm-ready sounds — Sublime, Dave Matthews Band, Bob Marley and Rage Against the Machine — Dispatch patented its own identity while barnstorming colleges and prep-schools across the country in the late '90s and early '00s. Along the way, the group provided more than a handful of fans with their first ticket stubs and taught a select few the inner workings of the jamband formula before formally parting ways last summer. And, in many ways, Dispatch's first posthumous live release, All Points Bulletin, retells that story by compiling highlights of the group’s final two shows into a well-groomed, three-disc set.At its active peak, Dispatch managed to pack some of the northeast's largest ballrooms and more famous outdoor spaces, including New York's Central Park SummerStage and Boston's Fleet Pavilion. But, just as the group seemed poised for large-scale national success, Dispatch announced a hiatus in 2002 — a move that ultimately unraveled into a number of side-projects and, finally, the group's official notice in 2004. Like so many bands, Dispatch's fanbase only grew during its time off the road, especially through its expansive web of tape traders and peer-to-peer networkers.
Eventually, the trio decided to put its personal differences aside and reunite for a farewell performance at Boston's Hatch Shell, a free, daylong event which also fell under the city's annual Nectarfest banner. Drawing thousands of fans, many of whom had never seen the group before, The Last Dispatch was an undisputed success which allowed the group to run through the breadth of its material one final time. Since the group had not performed onstage together in over two years, Dispatch also added an intimate show at the nearby Somerville Theater a few days prior that touched upon similar material in a more relaxed setting. As expected, the group's entire farewell week was captured both sonically and visually, resulting in a series of concert souvenirs. A three-disc set, two audio and one visual, All Points Bulletin is the first to hit shelves, presenting highlights from the group’s final outings and a few DVD bits drawn from the archives.
Leaving the behind-the-scenes experience to a forthcoming feature film, All Points Bulletin is essentially a greatest hits package disguised as a live album. While the setlist includes several of its newest numbers and a few solo cuts rearranged for a group setting, All Points Bulletin basically runs through highlights of the group’s four studio albums. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Dispatch always sounded freshest onstage, where the group could extend its arrangements and work in covers of its favorite artists in the form of outros (a bit of "Stir It Up" placed at the end of "Outload"). Lead songwriter Chad Stokes comes across particularly strong, proving his weight both as a singer with his white-reggae vocals and as a musician with his groovy guitar playing.While not a jamband by any stretch of the misapplied term, Dispatch did serve as the training wheels' for the next crop of the jam-faithful currently coming up through the ranks. Extending several songs well past their studio counterparts, Dispatch does include a bit of free-form improvisation in its sound, such as on "Here We Go" —- though the group's jams are still largely restrained. Indeed, like Dave Matthews Band before them, Dispatch is a song-oriented band playing by jamband rules and, as such, uses its jams more to energize the audience than to dig deeper into space. But, from the reggae-beat of "Open Up" to the world-beat drumming of "Elias," Dispatch keeps time with its jammy-peers, offering creative, independent, if not overly complicated, music. Using a variety of longtime friends and local musicians as a rotating backing band, Dispatch is also able to expand its musical palette, fleshing out its once stripped-down sound with horns, keyboards and auxiliary percussion. Such a move also frees the group's three core members, Stokes, bassist/guitarist Pete Francis and drummer Braddigan, allowing each to serve as frontman for at least a portion of the group's set.
In terms of song selection, All Points Bulletin seems to cover all the basics from college-radio staples like "The General" and "Bats in the Belfry" to deeper cuts like the militaristic "Even" and the touching early acoustic number "Bridges." Enjoyable rockers like "Here We Go" and "Time Served" flirt with the Rage Against the Machine's rap-metal politics and G.Love's soulful party mix, finding a successful balance of fun and seriousness. At its best, the group hints at its arena-rock potential during the show's closing version of "The General" and the budding power-ballad "Two Coins." At its worst, the group, especially Francis, falls back on college-crowd clichand somewhat annoying crowd pump-up gimmicks.
Unfortunately, Dispatch imploded before its sound could truly reach its mature potential. While the group's final studio album, 2000's Who Are We Living For?, explored a more mature rock-driven direction, and experimented with free-form jazz-funk, Dispatch never truly explored its new direction. New songs like "Ride a Tear" feel like mid-show filler before the energy picks up again with setlist staples like the anthematic "Even" and the guitar-showcase "Passerby." Though All Points Bulletin does a better job of capturing the group’s live energy than its previous concert collection, Gut the Van, the two-disc set does overlook the playfulness that made Dispatch’s weighty themes accessible to its largely, young audience. But, for new fans, All Points Bulletin provides an easy access point to some of the group’s best known numbers.
While the group's final outing unfortunately spiraled out of control, with fans throwing bottles and disrupting an otherwise emotional event, All Points Bulletin isn’t aiming to recreate the feel of Dispatch’s final concert. Instead, All Points Bulletin offers an alumni-bulletin account of where each song stood before the band’s untimely breakup. Some tracks, like the aggressive "Time Served," have aged gracefully into adulthood, while others, like the sing-a-long "Bang Bang," seem stuck in a collegiate time-warp. Either way, All Points Bulletin can be considered the report card for the group’s final live examination.