Dave Matthews Band, State Theatre, Sydney, Australia- 3/26&27
Imagine… what if, Dave Matthews Band they never had any hits and never got played on the radio? Well that's exactly what's happened to them in Australia. Sure, "Too Much" and "The Space Between" were spun on major radio a handful of times, but never enough for them to build any kind of following, with commercial radio and record companies always pushing dance music, new-rock or punk ahead of the DMB's jazzy violin stylings.
Instead, it’s been a long word of mouth build over the years down under, with Letterman appearances and lent CDs from American visitors meaning they’ve slowly built to a be an underground cult act big enough to finally warrant a visit down under (a proposed 2001 visit was cancelled following 9/11).
Instead of starting afresh with local crowds, this tour was all about playing catch up’ on the last ten years, giving them a brief run through of all the stuff they’ve missed live, and although the two Sydney shows were jam packed, they weren’t packed full of mind-blowing jams.
Someone once said the most valuable commodity in music is the ability for fans to discover bands themselves and, hence, a fervent "my band" dedication arises. That dedication lead local promoter Michael Coppell to primarily bring them out for the very-awesome Byron Bay Blues Fest, which has been home to String Cheese, Bela Fleck and Widespread Panic over the years, but then go onto charge a whopping AUD$97 a ticket for their solo shows (about US$75 at the time of writing). As a reference point, only Bob Dylan manages to get away with charging this much when he visits, and that’s on a triple bill with The Waifs and Ani DiFranco. Jack Johnson, Santana, Beastie Boys, REM, even Norah Jones were cheaper). Still, both Sydney shows sold out in under ten minutes, making them a big cult’ act that Aussie promoters and industry pundits might pay attention to now.
But with most of the fans having waited ten years for the first ever Aussie DMB concerts, it was a small price to pay, especially considering they’d be playing 2000 seat theatres instead of massive 20,000 seat arenas. And what a theatre Sydney’s State Theatre is. An art-deco era movie house made to look Victorian (complete with smoking rooms and ladies lounges), it’s literally located right in the middle of Sydney’s central business and shopping district, just down Market street from Hyde Park. Other acts to perform here over the years have included Cyndi Lauper, David Gray, Sarah McLachlan and Crowded House.
Local singer-songwriter Carus got the hard job of opening, made even harder by the fact he’d never even heard of the Dave Matthews Band. A solo acoustic songman, usually opening for big Aussie acts like John Butler, he did an admiral job of filling the luscious surrounds with glowing ballads about pot growing, passed away friends and travelling. Dave himself even introduced him, and the audience was very respectful, to the point where he sung most of his last song unamplified. Some in the audience were whining that Jack Johnson (also on tour at the same time) got local hero Xavier Rudd … but what are you gonna do?
Onto the Dave Matthews Band. As predicted, totally different setlists both nights, upsetting many who could only afford to go once. The upcoming single "American Baby" was the only song that got played both nights, which Dave describing as being about trying to heal an America fiercely divided between left and right ("So’s Australia," screamed one fan), and also being about little girls. Perhaps they want the new CD to actually get on the charts here.
Energy levels were higher on night one, with the audience see-sawing between ecstatic joy at the first few moments of recognising a song, to complete and utter awe-induced silence during the new, unheard material. You could even hear the air conditioners. Sitting up in the Dress Circle (the top balcony) the views of the whole band were superb, particularly Carter’s talent, and the sound pretty damn good as well, even if the scaled down lighting rigs didn’t shine on us quite as much as we’d hoped.
After a several minute standing ovation, the band emerged, opening with "Everyday" (and the crowd singing the #36 refrain). The crowd’s energy levels obviously influenced the band, as for my money, I haven’t heard them play off each other like this for ages. Or maybe it was just the fact I finally got to see Boyd Tinsley’s flailing dreadlocks, Dave’s pigeon dancing and Carter’s schizophrenic drum work in the flesh.
The rest of the setlist was mish-mash of old and older, with a predicted but nicely racious "Crush/Stone" double header, a silent "Loving Wings," a "Granny," a "Grey Street" and the only noticeable major jam of the night, a lengthy "Lie In Our Graves." The whole performance was dedicated and precise, though none of the versions were anything to write home about. But the audience lapped it up.
The encore, "Don’t Drink The Water" is a very timely song for Australia while Aboriginal reconciliation remains an unresolved topic. Possibly for that reason, DDTW never received any airplay in Oz (our major youth broadcaster Triple J is government funded and tries to avoid being accused of political bias), and that night’s performance was greeted with restrained delight, some could say even shame. But maybe that’s just me and my politics. "Ants Marching" on the other hand, the song which launched them in America but never even got a look in here on TV or radio, somehow got the whole crowd off their arses finally.
At two and a quarter hours, it was a great warm up for what was coming the following night. Fans who hung out the front of the theatre afterwards finally got to meet the whole band after they all paid their dues at Sony Music industry function at the Statement bar downstairs. They all said they were having a blast and the ever gracious Carter even went so far as to say this tour was basically about "testing the waters" and that they plan to come back later in the year or early next year and play bigger venues. Which our audience in the intimate State Theatre even more memorable.
The next night featured a somewhat less devoted crowd (i.e. less singing along and clapping), but in my mind, a much better show. Opening with a not-so-lengthy "#41" (an obvious crowd favourite proven by pre-show drinks at a pub in Glebe which named it the most wanted song of the night) and cleared the way for what was to follow. They played most of Under the Table and Dreaming and Crash, and nothing off Everyday or the Lillywhite sessions. For most in the crowd, it was heaven, and highlights included crowd favourites like "Crash" and "Satellite," a woo-wooing interactive "Warehouse," as well as a "will it ever end?" finale of jam vehicles like "Jimi Thing" (with the Buffalo Springfield tease and a whole bunch of skat singing by Dave), a dark "Drive in Drive Out" and a much requested set closer of "Two Step."
"Well you all got us tickled pink" is how Dave described the trip, his voice hoarse from doing six shows in eight days (and a TV appearance on the national Letterman rip-off Rove Live). The "Watchtower" encore had bassist Stefan Lassard teasing our National Anthem "Advance Australia Fair," a nod to show either they paid attention at the Olympics and/or they were honoured to be here.
My only complaint (aside from the ticket price and lack of new songs) comes with the piano solos from Butch Taylor. If Ben Folds can afford to tour the country with a real piano, so can the Dave Matthews Band, and with the synth-piano solos veering off in 80’s jazz territory, it sure did seem to lack the beauty that comes from a real piano. Just my opinion.
What Dave and the guys showed on their first trip down under is that for a band that’s been around fifteen years now, they still play their instruments with intense dedication to both musicianship and improvisation. Couple that with an intense but small local fan base and you’ve got a band which can sell out theatres in minutes, but honestly, most people here STILL hasn’t heard of. For me, it was like having a mix tape of my high school and uni years played out on stage in front of me, like some kind of fucked-up High Fidelity scene. But hey, we all need music with emotion sometimes, even if it is Dave and not always Elliott Smith.
They’ll probably never catch on in Australia in a big way, but perhaps, like Michael Franti and Ben Harper before them, Dave and the boys could become an annual underground visiting act because of our fine weather and dedicated crowds.