Matthew Barney’s ‘Redoubt’ at Yale University Art Gallery

I was fortunate to attend Saturday’s premiere of Redoubt, Matthew Barney‘s new film and accompanying exhibition, at Yale University Art Gallery, the artist’s alma mater. The intimate new work is smaller in narrative scope and scale than its predecessors River of Fundament (which still has me under its spell), Drawing Restraint 9, and The Cremaster Cycle. But that in no way diminishes it. The multimedia collection is powerful, engaging, and promises to stay with you long after you leave.

Redoubt, the 134-minute film, features only six characters. (There are also four others, a bartender and three bar patrons, who tangentially appear for several minutes.) Its name literally means a defensive fortification, but the word is also used regarding political movements. Specifically, American Redoubt is a survivalist movement in the northwest region of the US, including Idaho, where the work takes place. The entire wordless film is set in and around Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, not far from Barney’s childhood home of Boise. It’s visually and sonically subtle to an effectively unsettling degree. A minimalist but enchanting score by Jonathan Bepler accompanies the mostly stark imagery: snow-covered panoramas, slow pans, careful and deliberate gestures, and extended slow-to-moderately paced physical sequences. Peter Strietmann‘s cinematography captures the essence of the wilderness’s micro and macro elements—from the privacy of a hammock or shared gaze to the vastness of an untamed wilderness in which you can easily be lost and forgotten.

The complete absence of dialogue further emphasizes the work’s physicality. Movements and gestures ordinarily ignored when accompanied by spoken word are exponentially magnified when the primary mode of communication. The that end, four of film’s main cast (2/3 of the six) are portrayed by dancers. Of those four, three of them execute their choreography in challenging external conditions, a nod to Matthew Barney’s trademark Drawing Restraint series. Such conditions include knee- and waist-deep snow, sub-zero temperatures, working within tight spaces (e.g., in a hammock or on a small tarp), and while scaling and descending from trees.

Just as Barney worked with operatic language in River of Fundament, he addresses dance head-on in Redoubt. I should note that much of the choreography is done by cast member Eleanor Bauer, who performed a dance sequence in Act III of River of Fundament as one of the Little Queens in Usermare’s court.

As a brief synopsis, I’ll simply quote the one on the Yale University Art Gallery’s website:

Set in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range, the film layers classical, cosmological, and American myths about humanity’s place in the natural world, continuing Barney’s long-standing preoccupation with landscape as both a setting and subject. Redoubt loosely adapts the myth of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a hunter who trespasses on her and is punished… [T]he characters communicate through choreography that echoes and foreshadows their encounters with wildlife.

Yale University Art Gallery

In this abstract adaptation of the myth of Diana, Barney also addresses the reintroduction of wolves into Idaho, hunting, weapons and artillery, survivalism and its relation to regional politics, Native culture and its relation the state, the land management bureaucracy, and more. Continuing his tradition of casting practitioners over actors to fill the roles, the cast includes:
Diana, goddess of the hunt: Anette Wachter, record-holding champion sharpshooter
Calling Virgin, attendant of Diana: Eleanor Bauer, dancer and choreographer
Tracking Virgin, attendant of Diana: Laura Stokes, dancer, aerialist, and contortionist
Electroplater, alchemist and assistant to Engraver: K. J. Holmes, dancer
Engraver, a U.S. Parks ranger: Matthew Barney, artist
Hoop Dancer, Native dancer: Sandra Lamouche, Native performer

The narrative is divided into six hunts (days) plus a prologue, stemming from a conversation Barney had with a hunter who claimed that tracking and hunting a wolf would take at least six days. Over the course of the work, Diana, accompanied by her attendants, tracks and hunts a wolf. Being the goddess of the hunt, Diana’s actions are portrayed as more of a sacred duty—something she must complete—rather than a sport of choice. She portrays arguably no emotion at all in any of her actions. Meanwhile, the Engraver (Actaeon), roams the wilderness, capturing scenes with his engraved drawings, returning each evening to his shared home (a trailer adorned with survivalist trappings) with the Electroplater, a maternal figure of sorts who both transforms his engravings via electrochemical baths as well as ritualistically and cosmologically translates his work and the story at large into part of the Cosmic Hunt mythology. Eventually, the Engraver happens upon Diana’s hunt, at which point he is drawn to capturing her image. As punishment for this, wolves eventually descend upon his trailer and destroy his art.

Reintroduction: State five

In Hunt 5, the Engraver briefly leaves the mountains and drives to a nearby town, where he happens upon the Hoop Dancer while she quietly prepares a private performance of her own. Notably, she is in an empty American Legion hall that is heavily decorated with US military paraphernalia. And when she dances, we, the audience, cannot hear her music, as she is listening to her iPhone with headphones. We can only watch. Some early reviews have remarked on how out of place this seems to be, but to me that’s the point. The one Native character is removed from the land, surrounded by four militaristic walls (and yet leaving the door to the outside open), and must conduct her ritual privately, whereas the five non-Native characters are allowed to carry out their own rites with abandon throughout the land. And the Engraver, who does briefly observe the Hoop Dancer, ultimately chooses not to capture her image.

The use of dance as a narrative device, much of it including contact improvisation, was quite effective, and the choreography and execution was engaging and thought-provoking. The dearth of sudden or quick movements in the film, both conveying the limitations of the harsh conditions in which its performed and illustrating the patience required when tracking and hunting, provided a subtle tension throughout. From the Virgins’ minimally adjusted gait—graceful and intentional, yet contrived to the slightest degree—while they follow Diana through the woods, to the manner in which they move their heads and limbs while looking for Diana’s prey, the smallest gestures often have the most lasting effects.

Additionally, dance is present throughout a vast majority of the film, even if not in the foreground. As an example, there is a scene in Hunt 2 in which Diana sits by a river and slowly cleans her handgun (in a manner later ritualistically emulated by her attendants toward the end of Hunt 6) while her attendants slowly bathe (through dance) in the water. Much of the time the camera focuses on Diana’s deliberate process, while the attendants can be seen slowly moving while partially submerged in the background.

In a directorial move that reminded me of River of Fundament, the Electroplater engages in an extended dance “monologue” in the film’s final scene, which is her first dance of note in the film (save for a cosmic pose struck in the prologue). In River of Fundament, Joan La Barbara, a legendary vocalist and master of extended techniques, portrays Norman Mailer’s widow. As such, she is present in most of the five-and-a-half-hour film, but she doesn’t sing until deep into the third act. When she does, just as with the Electroplater’s dance, it’s both surprising and powerful.

Further emphasizing the economical use of action, Diana herself discharges a firearm only a handful of times over the course of the story: twice to harm the Engraver’s work, and only two or three times directed toward prey (deer, a wolf). Instead, much of what is shown of Diana is her patiently tracking, waiting for, and considering her prey and rituals. It wasn’t just the jaw-dropping accuracy of a sharpshooter that Barney wanted from Wachter, but also to convey just how natural and instinctual Diana is with her tools and methods, and she more than delivered.

Jonathan Bepler’s minimal, mostly consonant score, which he performed himself along with some haunting vocal work by Megan Schubert (also of River of Fundament), provides an engaging, non-diegetic aural layer. While not tonal by any means, moments of heavy dissonance are few and far between, and are mostly saved for the wolves’ destruction of the Engraver’s art at the end. The sparse percussion, keyboards, synthesizers, and voice often imitate or complement the natural sounds captured in the wilderness, such as the crunching of snow, the howl of a wolf or flapping of a bird’s wings, a bubbling brook, and the snapping of branches. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the natural sounds end and the artificial ones begin.

[I’d be remiss to not mention a possible operatic allusion from the prologue. In what I believe is the first aerial view of the river flowing through the mountains, Bepler’s score is briefly—a few seconds at most—reminiscent (intentionally or not; I don’t know) of Richard Wagner‘s Rhein leitmotif as used in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung (particularly the latter’s French horn choir in the prelude to Act III). If intentional, it’s a clever nod to the past. If coincidence, this Wagnerian appreciated it nonetheless.]

Accompanying the film is the exhibition of sculptures, engravings, and electroplated works, which also debuted this weekend. The collection’s composition of metals, wood, and chemicals is a continuation of Barney’s processes he began exploring in River of Fundament. The engravings, which are featured in the film, are also show in various states of (d)evolution: with and without patina, and having undergone the electroplating process to varying degrees. The large-scale sculptures include molds made from and/or using burnt, felled trees from the Sawtooth Mountains.

Elk Creek Burn
Elk Creek Burn

I’d recommend both the exhibition as well as the film individually, but they’re best absorbed together if you can plan your visit accordingly. Redoubt will be at Yale University Art Gallery through June 16, and will subsequently show at Beijing’s UCCA at the end of 2019 and at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2020.

‘Siegfried’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Siegfried is a triumph. Considering the production as a whole, it’s the strongest installment yet of the company‘s new Der Ring des Nibelungen, all of which is directed by David Pountney.

Pountney’s Siegfried continues tropes and themes from earlier installments while also, occasionally and more boldly than before, cleverly punctuating the story with his own narrative decisions. In my review of Die Walküre, I wrote:

In a similar vein to Das Rheingold, Pountney’s conceit here is less of a Regietheater-esque reinterpretation than one of a theatrical telling of the “original” story—or at least largely staying out of the way in order for you to come to your own interpretive conclusions. The twist, though, is that, as an audience member, you’re not watching and listening to a story so much as you are watching a story being told (likely decades ago). The stagehands-as-characters—moving sets, operating spotlights, etc.—is critical to this. Also welcome is the fact that the production is self-aware enough to not take itself too seriously.

While this largely applies to Siegfried, Pountney asserts himself narratively a bit more than before, and for the better—first, via the production’s visual language, and second, through the stage direction.

In stark contrast to the overall more muted tones of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the curtain opens for Siegfried to reveal a bright white stage and neon colors aplenty—greens, reds, yellows—with childlike writing and drawings on the wall and floor (visible to those in the balconies). Also visible is a crib (or cage?). Alas, we are in Siegfried’s room. Mime’s workstation, which is more practical and less playful, is also visible, but, as with most any child, the little one has the run of the place: toys everywhere, their room or designated play area spilling out into the rest of the abode. And when Siegfried finally appears, the infantilization is complete. Our nascent hero wears a baggy striped t-shirt, baggy cargo shorts, and sneakers. Instead of leaning into the young and strapping, but naive and simple, warrior, Pountney and the rest of the production team lean into Siegfried’s youth and naive confidence.

Adding to the caricature of an infantilized Siegfried is Mime, the Nibelung dwarf who raised him after the death of his parents Wälsung parents. Here, he’s wearing a dirty, tattered dress and, when we initially see him, work gloves that closely resemble rubber (dish-)washing gloves. He appears to the audience as both mother (visually) and father (vocally) to Siegfried, toiling away both forging swords and cleaning the kitchen. And while I could take umbrage as an at-home father of a toddler, I understood the visual caricature the team was going for—seeing Mime and Siegfried go back and forth in the messy play area was almost cartoonish.

The production team includes original set designers Robert Innes Hopkins and the late Johan Engels (who also designed Lyric’s Parsifal in 2013), costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. It’s worth mentioning this team not only in relation to its work on Chicago’s new Ring cycle, but also because this is a team that’s worked together for years. Throughout the evening, I was regularly reminded of the same team’s (sans Hopkins, before Engels’s death) production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2013-14, which I saw both years while teaching in Bregenz. Pountney et al. took that approach of heavily emphasizing the fairy tale elements and perfected it for Siegfried. (Complete with growing grass and a dragon in Act Two! I felt like I was sitting on the Bodensee shore, only watching a better production and performance.)

For quick reference, here’s an image of Siegfried confronting Fafner in Act Two of Siegfried:
chicagosiegfried
And here’s an image of the same team’s set for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the 2013-14 Bregenzer Festspiele:bregenzzauberfloete

Other light-hearted visual cues abound throughout the first two acts and a little of the third. A prime example, pun intended, is the reforging of Nothung, Siegfried’s sword. Instead of using Mime’s workstation, the little tike receives packages (delivered by stagehands-as-couriers) from “Rhein Logistik,” complete with the familiar logo of a black background, white font, and that familiar orange arrow. Fafner is also given cartoonish treatment that is rather effective. (It’s certainly better than trying to seriously portray an onstage battle with a dragon.) Once again, he’s operated by the visible stagehands.

In the program’s Director’s Note, Pountney emphasizes Siegfried’s place as the Ring‘s “Scherzo,” and that “it is the story of a child.” The end result is an entertaining romp for two acts that is capped off by an emotionally anguished third.

Act Three, by contrast, is much more visually subdued. Although Erda’s emergence and dress are a sight to behold, the red/white/dark motif is reminiscent of the final act of Die Walküre, and of course both acts end in the same place: Brünnhilde’s rock. Also, Siegfried’s appearance is made to seem that much more out of place when his youthful outfit is juxtaposed against the austere background and Brünnhilde’s formal, minimal attire. She’s clearly more mature, both emotionally and in age.

Separate from the set design and costumes, Pountney’s direction for Wotan gives the aging god a more malicious bent, particularly in Act Two. As an example, when Siegfried is able to understand the forest bird’s song after tasting the slain dragon’s blood, it’s not simply a conversation between our hero and his woodland acquaintance. Instead, Valhalla partially descends from the top of the stage, and we see Wotan working the forest bird’s voice (sung beautifully by Diana Newman) like a hand puppet while Siegfried interacts with the bird below. This, along with other appearances in the second act, make more explicit Wotan’s scheming and behind-the-scenes machinations, particularly when Siegfried is viewed as a standalone work instead of in conjunction with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, both of which feature Wotan more prominently.

The musical performances were strong across the board. Burkhard Fritz‘s Siegfried was energetic and youthful, but also quite moving when in dialogue with Christine Goerke‘s Brünnhilde in Act Three. Goerke was soaring and passionate, and offered a nice complement to Brunnhilde’s much younger soon-to-be lover. For me, it was one of the standout performances of the evening. Mattias Klink portrayed a frustrated and tired yet scheming Mime while maintaining a full and resonant sound. Vocally, Act Three is hard to beat. Not only does it end with Brünnhilde and Siegfried, but it begins with Wotan/The Wanderer and Erda, and here Eric Owens and Ronnita Miller really upped the production’s already strong musical game, eventually giving way to Goerke and Fritz to bring it home. Although Owens now feels very comfortable and powerful as Wotan, Miller’s anguished Erda nearly stole that first scene. And though their parts are small by comparison, Samuel Youn continued to entertain as Alberich, Patrick Guetti‘s Fafner was formidable and rich, and Diana Newman’s forest bird was playful and elegant, offering a nice respite from the male-heavy first two acts. Enveloping it all, of course, was the Lyric Opera orchestra, led by Sir Andrew Davis.

After three successful productions, I’m quite looking forward to seeing how next season’s Götterdämmerung unfolds, as well as then seeing this new full Ring cycle in its entirety in early 2020.

Dave Matthews Band in 2018: ‘Come Tomorrow’, Tour, and More

It’s now been a decade since saxophonist LeRoi Moore‘s passing. Thinking of that this past weekend has pushed me to finally jot down some thoughts on the band as a whole, and how 2018 has seen DMB fully realize what, in my opinion, it has been inching toward for well over a decade. While LeRoi’s passing didn’t kick-start this evolution, it arguably accelerated it to a degree. And, given that it was such a (tragic) milestone in the band’s history, it’s natural that it played at least some sort of factor, even if not as large as one as may initially seem.

Equally noteworthy, at a minimum, in the band’s evolution was the 2008 tour itself, which of course coincided with Moore’s accident and subsequent death and Jeff Coffin‘s joining the band partway through as a replacement. Even before Moore’s accident, the 2008 tour included:
– Tim Reynolds’s return as a touring member and, though unknown at the time, a full-time member in his own right. (In years past he was an “unofficial sixth member,” along with Peter Griesar from the early 90s and Butch Taylor in the late 90s through 2007.)
– Butch Taylor’s sudden departure on the tour’s eve.
– An explosion of cover songs in rotation in the set list (e.g., “Money,” “Money, That’s What I Want,” “Sledgehammer,” “Burning Down the House,” etc.).
Some Devil songs regularly joining the setlist rotation.
(- Jeff Coffin eventually joining the band partway through the tour after Moore’s accident.)

I won’t re-hash old posts here, but a brief word on each of those points. I’ve written about this before, but Tim Reynolds’s guitar stylings while playing with the full band ’91-’98 are vastly different from ’08-present. (This is entirely separate from his playing with Dave on their acoustic tours, which continued throughout this whole time period, including the early ’00s.) In that first decade, even though he played electric guitar with a mostly acoustic ensemble, his playing fit within the band’s overall sound—part of the texture, often felt instead of heard. Upon his return, however, he cranked up the volume and gave the band a much more explicitly “rock” sound, and his presence couldn’t be mistaken.

Tim’s approach strongly complemented the new cover songs that debuted in 2008, both in style and arrangement: “Money” (Pink Floyd), “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel), “Burning Down the House” (Talking Heads), “Hey Hey My My” (Neil Young), “Money, That’s What I Want” (Berry Gordy & Janie Bradford), “Bitch” (Rolling Stones), and “Thank You” (Sly & The Family Stone; formerly covered by Dave Matthews & Friends but not by DMB). Also noteworthy is that most of these cover songs lack a non-guitar solo (like the original), save “Money.” I write “style and arrangement” because these covers, unlike their most well-known previous covers performed with varying regularity (“All Along the Watchtower,” “The Maker,” “Long Black Veil,” “Angel From Montgomery”), were pretty straightforward. 2008’s then-new covers were less about being new versions of existing songs than they were with creating a fun vibe to add to the party-like atmosphere. Those that remain in 2018—e.g., “Sledgehammer” and “Burning Down the House”—haven’t much changed in arrangement over the last decade.

Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect at work here. Did the band’s approach to covers at all influence Tim’s approach to DMB’s catalogue—the prominent lead guitar needed for Pink Floyd then being mapped to Dave Matthews Band? Hard to say, but I’ve always wondered. After all, it’d be a little jarring to hear the DMB of 2007 or 2000 and then, midway through the set, be blasted by “Sledgehammer.” Even though Dave began selectively playing electric guitar live in 2001, “Eh Hee” or “So Right” didn’t provide the same wailing lead guitar as Pink Floyd’s “Money.”

Of course, it could be that Dave took the reins a little more aggressively and decided that that’s the sound he wanted…

In the past, it’s been noted here and there that the band—or at least select band members—had been pushing Dave to take up some more directional leadership within the group. Around the Lillywhite Sessions fallout and Everyday sessions, I got the impression in interviews that the band was going through the motions and rudderless (before Everyday), and that going into the studio for Everyday with Dave having already written much of the music with producer Glenn Ballard and providing charts to the band put some fresh wind under the band’s wings. And again, before LeRoi’s death, supposedly LeRoi told Dave in a moment of candor that he (Matthews) needed to lead the band and take charge.

Then there was the sudden departure of Butch Taylor for “personal reasons” right before the 2008 tour’s kickoff. It was never made publicly clear why he backed out, but speculation ran wild on message boards.* I felt like I was in the minority much of the time, but I was and remain a big fan of Butch Taylor’s playing, both with and without DMB. Even though I was gaining Tim Reynolds in 2008, it hurt to lose Butch Taylor. Perhaps Tim’s playing was a way to account for both electric guitar and a lost keyboardist? Who knows.

[*I try to avoid message boards—on DMB and anything else—completely, but this was one of 4 times I dove in to that toxic fever swamp as a reader-only for DMB material. The other three were this year: Boyd’s departure, Boyd’s #MeToo moment, and the 2018 tour kickoff. Every time I left exhausted and needing a shower. Woof. No more.]

[A digression, just to state this for the record: one of my first selfish thoughts upon learning of the possibility of both Tim Reynolds and Butch Taylor touring with DMB in 2008 (before Taylor’s departure) was the genesis and rapid blossoming of my wanting to see what would, for me, be the ultimate cover song that DMB could rip through: Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” Piano-driven rock with a strong lead guitar line, and the horns could provide some solid wall-of-sound harmonies throughout. My hopeless wishing was renewed this summer with the addition of Buddy Strong, but I’m certainly not holding my breath. (While I’m at it, EJ’s “My Father’s Gun” and “Burn Down the Mission” too, and both would be great with The Lovely Ladies…)]

With a few sporadic and rare exceptions, much of Dave Matthews’s solo album Some Devil wasn’t performed with the full band until 2008. And it didn’t take long for those solo songs to find a natural home in the DMB rotation, particularly “So Damn Lucky” and “Gravedigger.” The former quickly transformed early in the tour—the iterations I saw in Chicago (6/6), Detroit (6/9), and Buffalo (6/17) kept getting respectively longer, inching toward the large live jam it became by mid-summer.

Finally, of course, Jeff Coffin joined the band (becoming a full-time, permanent replacement), filling in for LeRoi Moore. I attended Jeff’s fourth show of that run (Rothbury 7/5/08), and it was wild seeing him up there with the music stand for the horn lines and then ripping during the solos. The latter part is notable in the respect that, before his accident, LeRoi Moore seemed to be playing fewer and/or shorter solos at the beginning of the tour, either splitting those duties even more with trumpeter Rashawn Ross or handing some over to Tim Reynolds. (I was particularly struck by his lack of solo on “#41” on 6/17, but those backing horn lines under Tim’s solo scratched me where I itched.) I knew there was talk throughout the band’s history of Roi’s wanting to eventually develop a full horn section. It took ~15 years to add a second horn, and the workload gradually evened out over the subsequent years, with Rashawn regularly guesting in the latter half of 2005, becoming a full-time touring member in 2006. Perhaps with Tim’s returning to the fold, Roi considered it an opportunity to build up the horn section as an entity? It’s another thought I’ve returned to many times over the years.

Along with Jeff’s solos, though, there’s another aspect that caught my eye. With now three virtuosic soloists (Jeff Coffin, Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross) hungry to play and make music with one another, what was violinist Boyd Tinsley to do? Continue with the same old tired and out-of-tune pentatonic scales and lukewarm enthusiasm save his one or two nightly solos? Again, it was around this time that my friend turned to me at the Gorge and remarked, “Where’s Boyd?” Even in 2007, though he was already a musical liability, there was still room sonically for Boyd’s melodies, countermelodies, and solos. In 2008, there was significantly less, with even less each subsequent year.

That was 2008. En route to 2018…

Beyond “new” members, the other original members kept on making music and advancing. Bassist Stefan Lessard particularly comes to mind, having pursued some Berklee College of Music coursework some years back. (I believe he was inspired by Rashawn Ross, an alumnus.) I remember thinking of the Rashawn/Berklee inspiration at night three of The Gorge in 2011 when Stefan opted to play the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite I for unaccompanied cello as the intro to “All Along the Watchtower,” with Jeff and Rashawn watching with particularly rapt attention. That, and Stefan’s penchant for effects and hardware seems to have grown since Tim’s re-joining in ’08.

I’ve documented much of my thoughts many of the band’s developments elsewhere (here and here and here). In short, Tim gradually became a gargantuan sonic presence, Boyd became obviously irrelevant, the horn section evolved and became often a single entity, and the new songs reflected all of these changes. The band that originally went from local Charlottesville phenomenon to commercial juggernaut—the mostly acoustic band with no lead guitar and a sax and fiddle—became a full-on rock band with horns, especially from 2008 to this year. Enter Come Tomorrow, which completed the process.

I won’t write a full review of the album here, but it’s worth at least a surface-level discussion. In short, my thoughts after the first listen were:
– I liked it overall, despite “The Girl Is You.”
– As an album, it’s a bit of an odd entity.
– In context, the transformation was now complete.

I do like the album, and I’ve listened to it a lot this summer. But, to me, even more than Away From the World, Come Tomorrow is almost more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. Almost. The identifiable horns are still there, and it helps that it includes some existing songs—including 2006’s “Idea Of You” and “Can’t Stop” and 2015’s “Virginia In The Rain,” “Black and Blue Bird,” “Again and Again” (formerly “Boblaw”—my personal favorite of the album), and “Be Yourself” (now “bkdkdkdd”). Boyd plays on only one track, “Idea Of You,” and it’s likely that his part was recorded years ago. And there’s only one horn solo on the whole album, a few seconds of Coffin’s soprano saxophone on “Black and Blue Bird”—track 10, deep into the album.

I consider it an “odd entity” because not only are some of the songs older, but the album was recorded over a ~12-year+ period and utilized four separate producers (Mark Batson, Rob Cavallo, John Alagia, and Rob Evans). The album’s not as cohesive a unit as others in my opinion, as it goes in many different directions, and the lack of a single producer keeps it from feeling completely unified, at least sonically. That said, it still mostly works, and it’s a rocking good time.

All that said, I like the album (save “The Girl Is You,” which is okay live—it’s the first studio recording I’ve yet to warm to in some respect), and to me it fits in the overall canon. Hell, even LeRoi Moore makes a couple of appearances, having participated in the early sessions for “Can’t Stop” and “Idea of You.” But it’s definitely a statement that this is a band unapologetically plowing ahead with its current iteration, be it DMB 3.0 or 4.0 depending on whom you ask. Whereas 2012’s Away From the World had a veneer of going back to the square one after 2009’s sonic memorial Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King—having Steve Lillywhite produce, including horn and violin solos (Boyd gets the album’s first solo break!), etc.—to me, it still sounded like more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. In fact, I could make the case that Come Tomorrow is as big of a statement about the band’s sound, if not bigger, than Everyday was in 2001. (In brief, just because Dave played electric, the sax and violin still carried the melodic weight, among other aspects. It sounded new, but the structure remained the same. Here, however, the structure is explicitly changed.)

[Song selection aside, the album’s personnel dwarfs Before These Crowded Streets and covers a wide berth: both Butch Taylor and Buddy Strong on keys, the Lovely Ladies (Tawatha Agee, Candice Anderson, Sharon Bryant-Gallwey), and a panoply of auxiliary musicians including some notable names, including the one and only Luis Conte on percussion.]

With Come Tomorrow, however, it’s as if Dave made the decision to stand proud and say “this is who we are now, and we’re happy with it.” And, as far as I can tell, the band agrees and is equally enthusiastic. In fact, the best way I can really describe it is that I see 2018’s DMB as meaning Dave Matthews’s Band instead of (the) Dave Matthews Band. While still a group effort, I get the impression that Dave is more comfortable providing some sort of direction than in the past. Something I’ve noticed in interviews this summer is that he regularly refers to “my band.” While not the first time he’s said it, I didn’t notice that as much in the past. (Perhaps he said it often and it didn’t catch my attention.) And that’s not to say it’s meant at all negatively. Not at all. But it’s different from “our band” or “the band.”

On another personnel-related note, he did finally directly address Boyd Tinsley’s departure in a recent interview on iHeartRadio’s Inside the Studio podcast. In short, he admits to firing Tinsley for not pulling his weight, and that it was a long time coming. (And after the subsequent sexual harassment allegations against Tinsley, I doubt Boyd will be returning anytime soon…)

This may seem like a recipe for a real mixed bag on stage: one near-founding member gone, Dave taking control, and the addition of a new touring member (and what I assume to be full-time member) in keyboardist Buddy Strong. But after seeing three shows on this summer’s tour and listening to others in addition to it, I can safely say two things about Dave Matthews Band in 2018:
– This is the BEST the band has sounded live in AT LEAST a decade, if not more.
– It’s obvious that the band members are having a lot of fun playing together this year.

As an ensemble, the band sounds great. Not once during any of the shows I attended did I remotely miss Boyd’s playing or any of his musical parts. Beyond that, Buddy Strong fits nicely into the band—always felt, even if not explicitly heard. And Tim Reynolds has dialed back the sonic onslaught. He still shreds when required, but when he’s playing rhythm guitar it’s in the background, which wasn’t always the case in recent years. It’s a nice mix of ’90s Tim and early ’10s Tim.

As a quick example regarding much of what’s mentioned above, take DMB’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” one version from 2008 and another from this summer (where I was dancing in the audience).

2008’s “Sledgehammer” with overpowering electric guitar and a superfluous Tinsley at Mile High Music Festival:

2018’s “Sledgehammer” at SPAC:

What’s more, the band members are having fun. I’ve heard Dave say as much onstage and in interviews more times this summer than I have in probably the last decade combined. Not that they’ve been dourly going through the motions in years past. But between cutting loose the dead weight (Boyd Tinsley), bringing in some fresh blood with Buddy Strong, and the focus and clarity involved with incorporating the new album’s songs and arrangements into the rotation, it’s a recipe for success that has worked swimmingly this year.

The onstage enthusiasm around Strong is palpable and reminiscent of that around Jeff Coffin’s joining (despite the tragic consequences that caused it), and also that of Rashawn Ross.

As with any change, there are members of the fan community griping about Strong’s addition, Tinsley’s departure, the band’s sound, etc. I have copious thoughts on those complaints, but it’s not worth wasting the time on it here. Suffice it to say that there’s only one direction to go: forward. Miles Davis wasn’t playing “Autumn Leaves” and “Four” in the seventies and eighties; John Coltrane eventually stopped playing “Blue Train”; and Radiohead likely won’t be playing Pablo Honey front-to-back anytime soon. Artists will grow and evolve, for the better or worse. I’m pleased with where things are headed musically with DMB in 2018 and beyond. While Come Tomorrow won’t knock Crash off its pedestal anytime soon, what it signals is certainly reassuring to this longtime fan.

Old Dog, New Tricks

It took many years, but I’m finally taking the plunge into the technological end of my music-making. Aside from my microphone and associated accessories, I’ve been removed from—if not accidentally averse—to wires and whatnot. I’m always with someone who’s more adept at working the effects, sounds, and PA. A near-luddite, it seems, I just plug in, blow, and move my fingers. Sure, I’ve done a lot of recording (mostly scratch demo work) at home, but it’s a far cry from anything covered in my music technology coursework from years past.

The times are changing, indeed.

After months, if not years, of musing about working with recording and effects on my own, I finally took the plunge a couple months back and got Ableton Live. My learning curve has been steep, a bit frustrating, but overall quite fun. It’s also been a lot of new information to take in. Latency, new hardware, etc. For a while, I felt like I was doing more reading and researching than tinkering and experimenting. It’s been quite the humbling remedial independent study in music technology, but nonetheless enjoyable.

My goal is twofold: to have a more sophisticated and listenable home recording setup, and to eventually perform with live effects. The latter has a ways to go, but the former is coming along nicely. The rabbit hole is endless, and I’ll of course set my limits, otherwise I’ll accomplish nothing while in search of more and better everything. But as of now, I’m glad to have gone down this road. As with improvising and now with tech, it’s refreshing to completely start at zero and see what happens…

Boyd Tinsley Stepping Away from Dave Matthews Band: A Natural Progression

Boyd Tinsley is stepping back from Dave Matthews Band. The violinist, backing vocalist, and near-founding member and his fiddle are part of the band’s trademark image and (original) sound.

Not much is known, as it was announced by Tinsley himself in a short and somewhat cryptic series of tweets Friday night:

Oddly, as of the time of this posting (midday Saturday, the day after) there’s been no announcement from DMB as a whole or management.*

I certainly have my own ideas, and my own reactions. Selfishly, I’m pleased. Very much so. A quick survey of social media confirms my feeling that I’m in the smallest of minorities among the die-hard fanbase. As I wrote here, Tinsley has been fulfilling an increasingly diminished role onstage—and even on record—for well over a decade. As I wrote in 2014:

Throughout this whole process and for reasons unknown to me (though I do have my theories), violinist Boyd Tinsley has fulfilled an increasingly diminished onstage role. While at The Gorge in 2009 or 2010, a friend even turned to me and asked, “Where’s Boyd?” He used to be a prominent and fiery soloist, but now he gets maybe two solos per show, and what solos he gets have occasionally been shortened (e.g., the end of “Seek Up” on this summer’s tour). On top of that, he’s often buried in the mix. I see him up there, but I rarely hear him during full-band moments. Musically and technically, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes. He’s easily become the band’s weak link over the last decade, as he’s obviously rested on his laurels. Personally, given how he’s played the last several years, I’m not lonely for his playing. And that’s truly a shame, because he has been known to rip it in the past…

In the years since, this has become even more apparent. Aside from one or two minutes-long solos over the course of a three-hour show, Tinsley largely stands off to the side or plays superfluous parts that can rarely be heard in the mix. And that’s not a bad thing, as he’s sounded bad for years. Out of tune and just generally “off.” Even with the vocals. For example, he couldn’t be bothered to nail his few words of rhyme—his only “lead” vocal part of the evening—on “I Did It” during this rendition at The Gorge in 2010:

Woof. I was in the audience and was embarrassed for him. I saw him try again a few days later in Houston. (If I remember correctly, a roadie scrambled out and taped the lyrics to his monitor beforehand.) While he recovered overall, Dave helped him with a cue at the beginning and he still barely finished in time:

Out of sentimental nostalgia, I do find it genuinely sad. One founding member died in 2008, and now another leaves in 2018. It’s certainly not the same unit I fell in love with in ’96. That said, the current band is certainly not the same ensemble musically or aesthetically as it was in 2008 or 1998 or 1994. I’ve gone through that elsewhere and don’t have the time to rehash those reasons now.

In short, though, this is just the next step in the natural evolution of this band. What began as an acoustic-based rock band with saxophone and fiddle and no lead guitar has become an electrified rock band with a defined horn section and occasional auxiliary fiddle. If continuing along that course, it was only a matter of time until the violin was completely jettisoned. With Away From the World being more of a Dave Matthews record than a Dave Matthews Band record, and new songs since having little functional need for a melodic violin lead, this isn’t out of left field.

One of my immediate reactions was that I didn’t purchase enough tickets for this summer. I’m already going to Buffalo, Toronto, and two nights of Saratoga. Now I feel like I should hit Cleveland too. Perhaps I’m being too bullish, but with the band’s weak link gone, I’m confident that the group will sound the best it has in years.

I wonder how this aligns with the impending album that’s due out this year. Is Boyd on it? If so, how much? Apparently he was greatly diminished in the 2018 calendar that was sent out to some weeks back. (I didn’t opt for one, but read about it today.)

The announcement itself and manner in which it was done is shocking, but the departure isn’t. Again, I don’t know the specific reason for Tinsley leaving in early 2018. I thought it’d eventually happen, but was clueless as to how or when. Tinsley’s announcement implied needing a break for health and family reasons, and just needing a break. Of course, if that’s the case, why did he spend all of 2017 touring with and promoting his other band Crystal Garden while DMB took the year off? One thought I had was that Tinsley has been swept up in the #MeToo fiasco. (Pure speculation on my part…I’m not basing that on anything or making an accusation.) Or maybe he was outright fired by the band as a whole. That certainly wouldn’t be unjustified if so. (I’ve often thought during a show, How does everyone else on stage feel about Boyd getting paid the same for doing so little?.)

Anyway, murkiness abounds. I won’t go on and on with the speculations. I’m just here to say that if Tinsley is indeed gone, I—a die-hard fan with over two decades of investment into the band and its music—welcome it. (The tour won’t start for months. Perhaps he’ll come back into the fold beforehand.) The band will sound great. Well, the band already sounds great. But now the weak link is gone. No ho-hum few minutes of out-of-tune pentatonic scales. Just solid, steady jams all around.

I’m sure that this comes off as much more negative overall than it really is. I have many great memories of Tinsley’s playing, and solos and songs that I love to listen to over and over. In fact, Tinsley is one of the reasons that Listener Supported is my favorite live album—fine fiddle solos and melodies, and a solid rendition of “True Reflections.” But that was recorded in 1999, and he’s not been bringing much to the table for years. And if the band is to continue progressing, I don’t see how Tinsley’s involved without some serious time in the woodshed.

Bring on the tour. I’m ready.

 


*UPDATE: Of course, within a half hour of my posting this, the band releases an official statement. However, it does as much to raise questions as it does to answer them: