Dave Matthews and Friends, Bryce Jordan Center, State College, PA- 12/12
Parking in State College, Pennsylvania is difficult to say the least. There's a virtual ban on street parking (even metered!!) between 2:00am and 6:00am and the tow trucks will get you if you so much as glance at a parking space even the empty ones require permits. Clearly the town does not like visitors. Except, of course, during Penn State football games when the entire Parking Authority apparently goes tailgating and then takes all weekend to recover. They don't extend the same courtesy to rock concerts.
But they do extend their attitude to the Bryce Jordan Center's security task force. The arena isn't exactly visitor-friendly and although the relatively new facility doesn't have much history with jambands, both times that Phish played here their lackluster performances appeared to comment on the curiously strong rule-enforcement and the energy-killing vibe.
Talking of vibes, today's larger touring bands each command vibes all their own. Phish Vibe is a pit bull. Dave Matthews Vibe is a baby pup. Phish Vibe is wild-eyed. Dave Matthews Vibe is goo-goo eyeball. Phish Vibe is lunar. Dave Matthews Vibe is solar. The two vibe-dogs had planned to meet outside the Bryce Jordan Center for a showdown. There was gonna be a scuffle.
Officer Winter decided to avoid the risk of an uprising by using simple scare tactics in this case, a temperature drop. A few heroic citizens held extra tickets in the air, a sure sign of sympathy and compassion for ticketless outlaws who might otherwise be taken prisoner by the cold and turned into ice sculptures. Someone offered me a ticket for $30 and, when I kept walking, offered it for $25. Less than half of face, but probably still more than its actual worth, bang-for-your-buck wise. This show did not sell out.
At 7:00pm, as scheduled, Emmylou Harris took the stage with her band, the curiously named Spyboy. They were professionals and did their best under the circumstances, proving in the process that proper country music was never meant to be played in Grand Ole' Arenas anyway. They finished with a cover of Daniel Lanois' "The Maker" (coincidentally, a song that Dave Matthews once performed onstage with Phish).
At intermission the arena is still empty. While we wait for it to fill up for the main event, let me fill you in on what's been going on. On Wednesday, several tour busses came into town and checked themselves into the valet lot of the Atherton Hotel. By Thursday, there had been entertainer-sightings throughout town. Mr. Matthews got his hair cut here. Mr. Anastasio poked his head in here. Thursday night the bar at the Atherton Hotel was standing-room-only and someone on his cell phone whispered into the mouthpiece: "There's an incredible buzz here, like something is about to happen." Shortly after, Mr. Anastasio accompanied as always by his jester, Brad Sands walked in for a drink. Meanwhile, in the lobby, Dave Matthews posed for photos and then slipped into a guarded elevator. The bellhops exchanged glances and the Peruvian carpet winked at the mirrored ceiling.
So when Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds walked onstage Friday night, they casually took their places and got things started without much ado; introductions had already been made. It was the first night of tour but the third day in town. At ease, fellas, at ease.
It is clearly possible for two performers to perform as a duo, with just guitars and voices, and assault an arena with energy and sound. Simon and Garfunkel can do it. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray can do it. Bob Dylan and his Harmonica can do it. And Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, well, they were doing just fine. Sure, the audience laughed and applauded Reynolds for doing little more than five-and-dime tricks on the guitar, and an estimated 10,431 of those commoners in attendance suddenly had a mass hallucination that they were hired chorus-hands and began to sing along. Loudly. But no matter. The music had just begun to eye that famous hill where, on the other side, annoying audiences and other outside phenomena are put in holding cells, bodies in waiting rooms, while the soul is allowed to frolic unsupervised. Some performers are able to topple the hill from back in their dressing rooms, rolling gleefully down the good side as they take the stage. Others lift their audiences over its incline with grandmaster flash show openers. And still, many a fine performer would rather dillydally playfully with their audiences until the hill comes into sight, at which time they make bold strides before leaping to the other side, hand-in-hand with everyone.
For Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, the hill didn't come into sight until the fifth song in, and clearly the entire arena saw it at once. The performers sprinted to hillside with a folk-driven rendition of "Dancing Nancies." But then Matthews told the crowd that he was going to go and round up his Friends while the audience was treated to its second intermission of the hour. Ever the host, Matthews suggested that we use the break to take a leak…while he went backstage and relieved himself on a pile of box office receipts. Presumably, of course.
I, myself, took to looking at the ceiling because, frankly, there wasn't much else to do. Still, I was looking forward to the next set. Don't think I damned it from the start.
But, like fireworks on the Fourth of July in Small Town, USA, the much-anticipated main attraction of the evening was punctuated with oohs-and-aahs sporadically appearing between lulls when duds, cheap bottle-rockets, or loud firecrackers took center stage. A few Roman Candles exploded, as Kerouac might say, like "spiders across the sky" and their impressive beauty is not to be denied. Like the band's skirt-raising (but chaperoned) version of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill." Like the Anastasio-led cover of "Up On Cripple Creek." And like the cut-above rendition of "Hey Bulldog," which had all the balls of Ron Jeremy and all the ass of Jennifer Lopez. Although few seemed to recognize the tune (from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine soundtrack), everyone bowed to its fury. Including Dave Matthews who, for once, let Trey do his thing. But even then, before Trey was able to reach the other side of the hill, Dave called him home to finish the set before its bedtime…or before his. By 10:40pm, the audience was released back into the custody of Officer Winter.
You want a proper review? Fine the band is fine, the show was fine, everything was fine. The rhythm section of Spyboy's Brady Blade and Tony Hall (borrowed from Emmylou Harris) is fairly similar to Dave Matthews' usual rhythm section, and they play an on-point game. And DMB fans know that Tim Reynolds is capable of flashy maneuvers up and down the fretboard. Ray Paczkowski, perhaps the unsung hero of this group, leaves his acid-jazz-freakouts in Vermont and instead builds upon some of the organ-rock groove-masonry that he tinkered with in Trey Anastasio's touring band.
Which brings us to Trey Anastasio. Onstage with "Dave Matthews and Friends," Trey looks like Trey, sounds like Trey, and plays like Trey. The problem is, as much as Dave encourages Trey, he also keeps him on a leash. The vibe-master of puppy love held the vibe-master of pit bull jams on a song leash throughout the night. Oh, he'd indulge Trey's little sniffs and sidetracks, and these provided the take-home moments of the show, but Dave is used to fast-food jamming where the Big Mac arrives moments after ordering. Want fries with that?
One more thing needs to be mentioned: A few songs into the ensemble set, Matthews proudly proclaimed that this was the first time all six musicians had shared a stage together, mumbling something about it just being pairs of them previously. Conceivably, that could explain the constant feeling of restraint. By the end of the night the band seemed finally ready to play. As mentioned above, "Hey Bulldog" was nearly transcendent and the encore (which included Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round In Circles") was one of the better segments of the night.
Just like it is wrong to ask Trey's bee not to buzz, so too can one not expect Dave Matthews' lion not to roar. This is Dave's show. It's Dave's friends. It's Dave's songs. And it is really good for Dave. The truth is, this band is much more exciting live than the Dave Matthews Band has been since the mid-90s.