Spoiler alert: If you are one of the Dave Matthews faithful—those disciples of Dave who believe his genius is unassailable and have sneaky suspicions that he is not only a musical god, but secretly the supreme ruler of the universe—do not read any further, because your day will be spoiled. I understand that you cannot tolerate anything but ecstatic praise for the man you worship, and that you consider it heresy to question his holiness, lest your faith be shaken and you risk having to shift your undying allegiance to another band—like, say, Coldplay.
I get it—so leave now, before someone gets hurt.
Second, let it be known that I am not a Dave hater. I like Dave Matthews quite a bit. I have most of his CDs, have seen a few of his concerts, and he's at the top of my Pandora playlist. I'm also an enthusiastic advocate of the live concert experience, and have seen more shows by more artists in my time than is probably prudent to disclose.
So, considering that The Dave Matthews Band has earned a reputation through 20 years of constant touring as one of the supreme live acts of our time, it is with some consternation and bewilderment that I say: Dave Matthews is one of the few artists who sounds more alive on his CDs than he does when he's playing live right in front of you.
An outrageous, blasphemous thing to say, I know. The Dave Matthews Band played Xcel Wednesday night, and doubtless there are legions of people out there telling their co-workers what an awesome show it was, and how great Dave sang, and how each one of his shows is a sparkling diamond of musical perfection.
And it was an okay show. The band opened with "Stone," and immediately shook the dust off (it was the first show of their fall tour) with a muscular jam. Then they went into "Warehouse" and let guitarist Tim Reynolds limber up his fingers. They played a few songs from their latest album—"Shake Me Like a Monkey," "Why I Am," "You and Me,"—but mostly offered a grab-bag of other songs—"Stay or Leave," "So Right," "Dancing Nancies," "I Did It," "Can't Stop"—jammed out on some classics ("Seven," "#41," "Water Into Wine," "Jimi Thing"—and closed with a fairly killer two-song encore, "Blackjack" and "Ants Marching." For the hometown crowd, Dave even threw in a little bonus, singing the least printable chorus of Prince's "Sexy MF"—something he also did at last year's 10,000 Lakes concert.
Like all DMB shows, this one had its sublime moments and spectacular, ever-escalating jams. On "#41," a quiet, tasteful conversation between saxophonist Jeff Coffin and drummer Carter Beauford built slowly to a classic roof-blowing crescendo. Both violinist Boyd Tinsley and guitarist Tim Reynolds got their chances to shine, and the final group jam with members of the opening band, Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears, was appropriately monstrous given all the brass firepower onstage. And yes, Dave did some of his goofy voices and chicken-danced a couple of times.
But there were also plenty of stretches where the band felt like it was on cruise control, just going through the motions—moments when it was too easy, for too long. Technically speaking, DMB played brilliantly—but there was something intangible missing, something that exists on his records but not necessarily when he plays the songs live.
Granted, one of the joys of listening to Dave Matthews' CDs is that they are so exquisitely produced, and such crystalline purity of sound is impossible to produce in a hockey arena. But I'm not talking about the quality of the sound; I'm talking about the energy that goes into it, the feeling it produces when you listen to it.
And it feels like Dave lavishes a great deal of love on his albums, but—even though he tours constantly, and playing live is what he's known for—he doesn't appear to be putting as much heart into the live show at the moment. On some level it feels as if Dave considers the arena rock thing part of his duty as a rock demi-god. He's doing it now out of obligation, not love—and if you listen carefully, you can hear it. The man is bored. He keeps himself entertained by goofing around onstage and, when he steps up to the mike, he gamely plays the role of Dave The Great as convincingly as he can. His band is so good that it can't sink below a certain level of musicianship, and that level is so high that most people don't notice or care. But, even though there was plenty of hooting and hollering at Xcel, the kinetic energy that exists between a band and 17,000 people when everything is firing on all cylinders and everyone knows it—well, it just wasn't there last night.
Now, I have no doubt that Dave Matthews and company spent many years pouring their hearts into each and every show, and that's how they earned their reputation as such a kick-ass live band. It's also not fair to judge a man's psyche or the state of his band by one show. No band has the magic every night, and this was the first concert of their fall tour, so it might take a few shows for them to get back into the groove.
Unfortunately, I don't think it's a matter of practice; it's more likely a matter of fatigue. The problem, of course, is that Dave Matthews is a human being, and now a father. He's been doing the rock-star road thing for twenty years, and that kind of life can wear on a guy. He's also become the biggest concert draw in the country, and is playing ever-larger arenas. It won't be long before he's given our country's highest honor, the Super Bowl half-time show.
But if you talk to musicians who have been sucked into the fame vortex and have experienced the pressure and drain of life with a touring rock-and-roll band, they'll tell you that, like everything you do over and over and over again, it gets old after a while. Musicians are creative people, and they like performing in venues that showcase their skills and allow them to explore and expand on their ideas. Arenas are lousy places for that kind of interaction and exploration, so it's understandable for their enthusiasm to wane every now and then.
DMB is taking a much-deserved break from touring next year, and that's probably a good thing for all concerned. I'm sure everyone in that organization wonders what normal, everyday American life is like. And it might help re-fuel the band's tank to wake up a few mornings in a row somewhere other than a bus or hotel room. Also, I suspect Dave is happiest with a guitar in his hand, writing new songs and figuring out how to arrange and record them. Playing them live is fun, but after a while it starts feeling like a job.
And if there's one thing musicians hate most, it's having to work a job.