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Published: 2003/09/25
by Tom Baker

Dave Matthews Band, Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater, Atlanta, GA- 9/20

Times change, and so do people. A few years ago I might've been a lot more energized at the prospect of a Dave Matthews Band show, but I approached DMB's September 20th performance at Atlanta's Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater with little more than the same mild buzz that accompanies any experience of moderate interest set outside my living room it was like, say, being somewhat dragged by a significant other to a movie whose previews had looked cool before the commercial started to come on every fifteen minutes; I wasn't dead set against going, but I could've stayed home and watched football just as easily. DMB is more or less a known quantity for me, so I was pretty sure it wasn't gonna be terrible, and who knew, maybe something cool might happen, like a guest shot from Warren Haynes or Robert Randolph or the like. Even though I haven't been getting much from their music for awhile now, it's not like I hate DMB; radio songs and videos don't really bother me because, well, I never listen to the radio or watch MTV.

And to be sure, there is a certain level of professionalism in such a grooved-in and road-tested touring act; the band (for the record: Stefan Lessard on bass, Leroi Moore on sax, Boyd Tinsley on violin, Carter Beaufordthe MVPon drums, and unofficial sixth man Butch Taylor on keys) forms a nicely tight ensemble, and Matthews, a surprisingly supple if unconventional guitarist and singer, knows a thing or two about songcraft as long as he restrains a tendency toward sap that would shame even John Mayer. And say what you will about their contributions to the larger world of music, the band does fill a needed role as musical primer; a lot of people would probably never have heard of or tried the work of Messrs. Haynes or Randolph if DMB hadn’t first blazed a trail through many a pair of headphones and incense-shrouded floor speakers, exposing record buyers to the possibility that music could be something more than 3:05 of glossy, machine-tooled verse-chorus-verse from the latest ex-Mouseketeer or spastic rap-metal brat (I’ve heard them referred to as a "gateway band" more than once, and, yes, DMB helped me score once upon a time and I ain’t ashamed to admit it). All in all, Id say that even if the Dave Matthews Band and I aren’t as tight as we once were, I’d probably still lend em cab fare if they asked.

Of course, the prospects of that occurrence are decidedly remote. DMB’s populist bent may have alienated the same scene that once nurtured the band, but it says something that they can command an SRO crowd in a shed as large as Hi-Fi Buys even at an average price of something like $50 a head. With little else to do while awaiting entry to this horribly mismanaged venue, I decided to perform a little math exercisebeginning with the conservative assumption that the average venue holds about 15K, and that DMB’s been selling out about forty dates a year since around 1996, you’re talking about something like 3.5 million people served in less than a decade. That translates into a lot of dough, and all of DMB’s members are probably richer than I’ll ever be barring lottery or an unexpected inheritance, but success only sucks if you insist on having a chip on your shoulder about it. Of course, it also says something that even without any in-depth examination of the band’s tour so far, I correctly predicted 10 of 17 songs played a full twenty-four hours before the show, but that’s not really the point. Just because people somehow expected DMB to jam with the relentlessness, experimentation, or variety of a Phish or Panic or Disco Biscuits doesn’t mean they ever did. Whether or not the band even "jams" at all is a subject for hot debate—sure, tunes like "One Sweet World" and "Jimi Thing" were allowed to breathe tonight, but even on extended numbers the playing is usually tidy, mannered, and, yes, somewhat predictable; when bassist Lessard gets a solo, you just know the band’s cover of "All Along the Watchtower" is coming next (although, to be completely fair, I have to mention that DMB’s take is one of the more interesting and original interpretations of the Dylan warhorse out there).

One does wonder, though, after watching the throngs of giddy youth in the aisles and seats and crowding the lawn lustily lap up the band's every move, what's really going on here; after all, this setlist made for a pretty dark travelogue through some serious and adult subject matter, be it an indictment of colonialism (the opening "Don't Drink the Water"), the misery of heroin / drug addiction ("Rhyme and Reason"), a lament of misspent life and fear of the outside world ("Grey Street"), the dehumanizing routine and lost dreams that typify modern life ("Ants Marching"), or the oppressive evils of Apartheid ("Cry Freedom"), all of it greeted with cheers and dancing and singalongs, hugs and lighters and cell phones held aloft. Does Matthews ever look out at a crowd and feel contempt? Does he long for a more serious and informed audience upon which to express his views, a more somber pulpit than the thrashing, sweaty, properly accessorized teens that currently make up a large slice of his fanbase? The generally affable but somewhat reclusive bandleader doesn't say much, either during a show or to the presshis opinions are nowhere near as overbearing as Bono's, even though the band is on par with U2 for hugeness, at least here in the Statesso we'll probably never know; but still, one wonders. Of course, political and social commentary have been around in rock n' roll at least since Dylan (speaking of him) first showed up, but rarely have they been accepted with such glee and the demented shouts of young ladies expressing their desire to bear the lead singer's baby; I haven't looked, but I doubt you could find many concert recordings where someone repeatedly exhorted Dylan to take off his pants. Maybe Dave M. does pine for inclusion in the pantheon of Serious Artists, maybe he's like a parent bribing his kid to eat the liver and Brussels sprouts with a spoonful of sweet dessert, or maybe he's just this generation's Paul McCartney, a smart and talented enough guy who knows a good gig when he sees it and is just giving the people what they seem to want. There's the possibility that three and a half million people in the last seven years could be wrong, but it isn't very likely that all of them are, at least when it comes to the entertainment value of the Dave Matthews Band brand name. And at any rate, the true barometer of any performance is the reaction of the audience, and as I worked my way back out of Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheater and into the warm late-summer night at the respectable time of 10:50, I didn't hear a single complaint. Another sold out show was signed, sealed, and delivered, and just about everyone probably made it home in time for curfew.

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