Disclaimer 1: Posts on the blog are largely considered drafts, likely for further exploration and sussing out down the road. This is by no means a final, polished work.
Disclaimer 2: I’m diving into the DMB rabbit hole here. (Similar to diving deep into the Wagnerian weeds in past posts.) Be warned.
Fandom can be a curious thing. Like Dr. Venkman’s laundry, it has many subtle levels. It ranges from being a passive fan of an artist or group – appreciating what’s heard on the radio and in friends’ collections, but not seeking out recordings or live performances – to being a fanatic – taking every word and note as gospel, acquiring all memorabilia, and seeking out every performance possible. (These are the “healthy” examples, of course; the dark side of this is of course being the likes of Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Jr., et al.) When it comes to Dave Matthews Band, I consider myself on the healthy and self-controlled/restrained fanatic end of the spectrum. Beyond knowing the catalog, I’m regularly purchasing memorabilia, seeking out live recordings, and have seen them – including offshoots Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds and Dave Matthews & Friends – 64 times throughout the country, from The Gorge in WA to their hometown of Charlottesville, VA. Thankfully for me the group is rarely off the road for long, as I’ve seen them annually since 2000, with 2009 including nine shows. (For what it’s worth, my runner-up of live shows is TOOL at 15.)
[Before the classical music-oriented readers start looking down their nose, consider analogous trends in "art music": seeking out performances, attending festivals, engaging the literature and scholarship. After all, I'm also a Wagnerian.]
The internet has allowed fan bases to unite and share information easier than at any time before. Fan zines and tape trading has now been replaced with message boards and bit torrents. The hub of this for DMB is AntsMarching.org, the largest fan site dedicated to the band. (The site’s namesake of course being the band’s de facto theme, “Ants Marching.” Ants are DMB’s Deadheads.) With over a couple hundred thousand active members, the site is also an informative source of info about the band and fan community at large, rich with data and news, and hosting hyper-active message boards. It has also evolved into a lobbying arm of sorts, one whose editorial bent I’ve rarely agreed with throughout its run. I love the objective news and rich data, but spare me the opinions. Hence this post’s subtitle of “AntsBitching” – complaining is one thing the site’s operators do quite well. And it’s of course well within their right to do so, but after a while it can provide a rather skewed representation of DMB’s fan community at large.
I’ve been a member since 2003 (I thought earlier, but perhaps I switched accounts), a year after the site’s launch. The site is like ESPN or cable news on overdrive: up-to-the-date info on whatever statistical minutiae you’d like to get your grubby paws on. My profile, which includes a list of all shows (and set lists) I’ve seen, offers some great discussion fodder with other fans. Overall, at the time of this writing, I have seen “64 Dave Matthews Band shows in which 1294 songs were played, an average of 20.22 songs per show. At these 64 shows, there [were] 185 different songs played.” What does that mean? Well, for example, the two songs I’ve seen the most are “Grey Street” and “Two Step” (28 each), the opening song I’ve heard most is “One Sweet World” (6), and my statistically rarest full-band set list is 12.03.05 (likely because of the rare “Christmas Song” coupled with the super-rare “Linus and Lucy” cover). Oh, and my rarity index is 25.32. Go team! I don’t participate in the forums, but I do actively watch the set lists while the band is playing each night of a tour (the songs are posted via the fan site as they’re played). DMB is first and foremost a live band, and one with an immense library of originals and a wide array of strong covers. Which is to say: I still get surprised and excited every show. For example: it took 39 shows for me to finally see the elusive “Halloween,” and 63 to FINALLY see “Pay For What You Get.” My first show opened with my favorite song (“#41″), and then I didn’t hear it again for years (even though it was often played the show before or after I saw them). And I’ve been fortunate enough to see some rarities: “Angel From Montgomery,” “#34,” “Rockin’ In The Free World” (w. Neil Young), the first time of three that they covered “Blackbird,” a show with two “#40″ teases and an “Anyone Seen The Bridge” opener, a double encore, and more. Enough of my pedigree. Suffice it to say, one can easily get lost in the wormhole (as I arguably just did).
As you can see, I love the site’s info and find it quite valuable. So what’s my beef? As mentioned, the site’s creative directors try too hard to lobby for this era, that album, and a particular setlist. They take the internal joy of fandom and try to weaponize it into group think-style campaigning via the site and social media. And it’s not like the band and management are completely unaware. After all, Live Trax 16 was selected for release by AntsMarching.org. (If only they’d moved ahead two shows to my first. Oh well, you can hear me cheering on Live Trax 29.) So what’s all the yammering about?
It seems that AntsMarching‘s editorial team is basically out to pretend that the years 2001-7 largely didn’t exist for the band. Supposedly the group lost its way with 2001’s Everyday, 2003’s Busted Stuff, and 2005’s Stand Up, collaborating with different producers and experimenting with different sounds and approaches (e.g., tighter arrangements). While those albums often featured new sounds for the group, I argue that the band’s core approach – a rock band with a lead sax and violin in lieu of a lead guitar – remained intact. Studio albums since 2009 may have featured some more familiar sounds, but since then the band has started to become a rock band with lead guitar, an active horn section, and an occasional fiddle. I’m all for artists evolving as time progresses – look at Miles and Trane – and I think the band sounds great now. However, you can’t sit there and tell me with a straight face that, stylistically, the Dave Matthews Band of 2004 is headed in the “wrong direction” whereas the Dave Matthews Band of 2013/4 is “true to the group’s spirit.” The DMB that’s existed since 2008 is a radically different band than what came before. And I continue to marvel at AntsMarching‘s ongoing crusade against the band’s middle period, which has culminated this summer in the occasional skirmish with band members on social media.
Part of this “misunderstanding” on AntsMarching‘s part, though, is the fact that none of them are musicians. If you want to engage in a sort of music criticism, which they at times do, it doesn’t hold as much weight if you’re not musically inclined or literate. Should they each have to play through Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Absolutely not. But there are so many facets that they neither appreciate nor understand simply because they don’t have a musician’s perspective. For example, in a recent podcast, one of the editors condescended to drummer Carter Beauford’s statement in a 2001 Charlie Rose interview that he felt professional when recording Everyday because he had charts for the music.
How dare he? Well, for Carter Beauford, an in-demand drummer long before DMB existed, I’m sure it did feel nice in the band’s context to enter the studio with professional charts for a recording session. That’s just one small example of the many to choose from. Also, if any of the moderators happen to ever read this, “Fool To Think” is NOT in 7/8. Shame on whomever told you that. The vocabulary word you seek to describe the chorus is “hemiola.” As for setlists and song selections, sometimes musicians just don’t feel like playing particular pieces. And, often times, a piece can be played repeatedly because it’s a good vehicle for improvisation (e.g., “Jimi Thing,” though I agree with Ants that it could be shelved).
Before going further, a brief history to catch newbies up to speed, if interested.
The band’s first three major label releases – Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, Before These Crowded Streets; otherwise known as “The Big 3″ – are universally near-mythologized by fans and critically praised. (Even if you don’t like DMB, you can thank BTCS for knocking the Titanic soundtrack from the Billboard #1 spot upon its release.) The producer for all three was the one and only Steve Lillywhite, also known for his work with U2 and The Rolling Stones. While working together on a fourth album, the band and Lillywhite euphemistically “parted ways.” However, the tapes of that album-in-progress were leaked, resulting in what we fans refer to as The Lillywhite Sessions, a wonderful proto-album of great, albeit depressing, songs. Many of the album’s songs, such as the aforementioned “Grey Street,” were played throughout the 2000 summer tour, a tour that was effectively an album release tour for the ultimately abandoned album. 2001 then saw the sudden release of Everyday, an album starkly different in tone and production from both The Lillywhite Sessions as well as much of the band’s earlier material. The band collaborated with producer Glen Ballard, who advocated a tighter, more radio-friendly approach: shorter and more taut arrangements, a sheeny “pop” mix, and Dave playing electric guitar as well as acoustic. This was – and remains for many – a betrayal by the band toward its longtime fans, many of whom adored The Lillywhite Sessions. This “rift” between the fans and the band largely continued through 2003’s Busted Stuff (a largely re-recorded The Lillywhite Sessions produced by Stefon Harris) and 2005’s Stand Up (produced by Mark Batson). 2009’s landmark Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (produced by Rob Cavallo) is considered by many fans to be the album that brought the band “back on course,” with AntsMarching.org declaring that the band finally has a “Big 4” – Big Whiskey… holds up to the mythical first three albums. Similar remarks were made about 2012’s Away From the World, which reunited DMB and producer Steve Lillywhite.
I see and hear it differently, however. While the studio albums in 2001-2005 may have featured a different tone and production quality – tighter arrangements, “poppier” mixes – the band’s overall stylistic formula remained the same: a rock band with no lead guitar but instead a saxophone and violin as lead melodic instruments. Yes, Dave Matthews himself played electric guitar on Everyday and Stand Up (a landmark departure), but it was still in his trademark riff-based style in a largely rhythmic capacity. 2009’s Big Whiskey…, on the other hand, may have included lengthier jams, but the band’s overall style began to change in the studio (although it had already significantly changed live in 2008). This shift was officially signed, sealed, and delivered via Away from the World. I dare say that the mixes and arrangements may have come full circle – lengthier jams and an earthier, more live sound – but DMB can no longer fully claim that they’re a rock band with a sax and violin instead of a lead guitar. As far as new material is concerned, they’re now more of a rock band with a lead guitar, active horn section, and occasional fiddling. This also gradually applies to a chunk of the older catalog. Enter the once-touring-now-de-facto-permanent members Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross, and Jeff Coffin.
Guitarist Tim Reynolds has been a friend and colleague to members of the Dave Matthews Band since before DMB’s inception. A fixture of the Charlottesville music scene, Dave sat in with Tim’s band before forming his own group. Tim regularly toured with the band through the 90s and can be heard all of “The Big 3.” Long considered the unofficial sixth member of the band, his often subtle electric and acoustic guitar work is a fixture of the band’s studio sound. It’s a nuance that doesn’t go unnoticed but avoids the spotlight. He’s not a featured soloist on those first three albums, but rather a rhythm and textural guitarist, occasionally jumping in during larger jams (e.g., the end of “Crush”). While he continued with the occasional acoustic tours and appearances with Dave Matthews, he didn’t tour or record with the band from 2000 through 2007. (During that time, keyboardist Butch Taylor toured with the band and abruptly resigned before the 2008 tour. The band was also often joined by backup singers The Lovely Ladies during the 1998-2001 tours. More on them later.) 2008 saw the return of Tim Reynolds, and he’s since remained a full-time fixture: all tours and studio work. However, the Tim Reynolds that toured with DMB in the 90s is not the one who returned in 2008. Tim 2.0 occasionally provides subtle nuance as before, but he mostly is at the sonic forefront. His electric guitars run rampant throughout tunes old and new:
2009’s “Shake Me Like A Monkey”
Do the above songs sound bad with Timmy? Not at all; in fact, I quite like them. He plays like that on the original studio recording of “Shake Me…,” but he surely doesn’t play like that on either the original studio recording of “Warehouse” or live versions throughout the 90s:
“Warehouse” (w. Tim Reynolds) from Live at Red Rocks 08.15.95:
Trumpeter Rashawn Ross started sitting in with the band on the 2005 summer tour. Then a member of opening act Soulive, he would occasionally guest on a couple songs each night, which is standard practice for DMB. Summer 2006, however, proved different as Ross joined the whole tour, sitting in for not the whole set but gradually more and more. By the time I saw them late in the tour at The Gorge, he was on and off stage throughout the night, and no longer playing solos or occasional backing lines, but rather playing defined parts with saxophonist LeRoi Moore as well as playing on that tour’s new material. For example, 2006’s “Break Free”:
By 2007, it was clear that Rashawn was at least a permanent touring member, at least for the time being, as he wasn’t leaving the stage and he was also assisting with background vocals. For the record, I’m a fan of Rashawn’s playing and what he’s done with DMB. But it can’t be denied that his inclusion ultimately affected the band’s sound. But more than simply playing solos and singing, he and Roi started to functionally become a “horn section” as opposed to a couple of horn soloists, meaning that they starting to become a sub-unit within the band, separate from Boyd’s violin or the rhythm section. It’s worth noting that, apparently, this was something Roi had wanted from the band’s inception. Granted, I’ve heard Dave and Stefan mention this in at least a couple interviews, but enacting it ~15 years in is a noticeable departure. It looked like the band was headed in the direction of a lead guitarless-rock band with a horn section and violin.
Then 2008 happened.
I, along with all other fans, greatly anticipated the 2008 tour, as Reynolds was to re-join the band on the road. I was happy to finally see Tim play with the full band as well as Butch, and then Butch unexpectedly and mysteriously left the band on the eve of the tour. (For reasons that have yet to be confirmed — he apparently remains on good terms with the group.) The tour started off with a bang, with the band playing a slew of new and unexpected covers as well as dusting off a number of rare originals. In the few shows I saw at the beginning of that tour, I thought that both Roi had backed off some solo-wise, with Tim picking up Butch’s piano solos as well as a couple of Roi’s. (The transformation into a defined horn section was nearly complete.) Also, Tim’s guitar was a much larger presence than I – or I think anyone else – had really anticipated. I enjoyed it, but it was certainly a marked departure.
“Cornbread” live at Rothbury Music Festival ’08 — I wasn’t far from the stage…
AntsMarching, however, was simply happy that Tim was back. Outside of some minor observations upon his return, the site’s moderators haven’t really addressed this change.
Also notice the different saxophonist (and music stand) in the above clip. Jeff Coffin, one of my favorite saxophonist long before 2008, jumped aboard when LeRoi Moore was critically injured in an ATV accident, leading to a coma and his eventual death a couple months later. (Eerily, he died in his LA hospital the day that the band was to perform in that same city.) Coffin has since remained with the group and integrated his own playing style into the band’s sound, which was of course different from Roi’s. All of this of course made 2008 a landmark tour. A founding and core member died (and was replaced), Tim Reynolds returned, and that tour’s song selection is considered legendary by the community.
With the next year’s release of Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, the band made a strong statement that it was here to stay. (Even though the future seemed uncertain with Roi’s death.) The new material was STRONG, and the band hasn’t quite disclosed which lines were Roi’s and which were Jeff’s on the studio album, though I have my notions. (Portions were recorded before Moore’s passing.) “Shake Me Like A Monkey” is a good primer for the album, featuring a lead electric guitar, tight horn lines, and somewhat buried fiddle. As much as I love that song, it’s signal as to where the band would go henceforth. Fast forward to 2012 and Away from the World cemented that fact. To me, Away… sounds more like a Dave Matthews solo album than it does a full-band effort much of the time (see “If Only,” “Sweet,” “Mercy,” and “Belly Full”), even though I love it (particularly “Rooftop”).
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…
So, an increased and prominent lead guitar role, a soloistic saxophone turned horn section, and a once-soloistic violin is now, arguably, a glorified member of the rhythm section.
Now what does all of this have to do with AntsBitching? Well, as mentioned, depending on what podcast you’re listening to or article you’re reading, Big Whiskey… and Away…each can be held up alongside “The Big 3.” That, together with the site’s blind faith in all things Tim, Rashawn (and now Jeff, after a trial period), and Lillywhite Sessions, as well as the editors’ (and subsequently many other fans’) core disdain for Everyday, Stand Up, setlists, and Lovely Ladies, leads to a toxic, partisan approach to the band, particularly on this just-finished 2014 Summer Tour. AntsMarching and its allies want the band to feature its supposed “classic” or “authentic” sound or approach that, so far as I can tell, is anything the band did during the years 1991-2000 and 2008-present (with the exception of 2006’s “Shotgun,” a song fetishized by the site’s editors). However, the band sounds far different in 2008-14 than it did during the first ten years.
Finally (hopefully), I mentioned that this one-sided tension between AntsMarching and DMB had culminated this summer into a couple skirmishes with band members. It did so over a relatively unexpected topic, that of The Lovely Ladies, who unexpectedly returned to performing occasional sets with the band throughout this summer after a 13-year break. I didn’t see them this round, but I saw them during a few shows in 2000 and 2001. Ants moderators and allies quickly and ferociously rallied to get them to stop appearing with the band through the tour for various reasons. I believe that one main reason was for the association of the Ladies with the Everyday material, particularly the marathon renditions of “Angel” from 2001 (even though they’re a result of “Stay (Wasting Time)” from Before These Crowded Streets and oldie “#36″). Even though the Ladies didn’t help bring back the Everyday songs, these “fans” went ballistic and got both bassist Stefan Lessard and trumpeter Rashawn Ross to engage on Twitter, both of whom deleted “impolite” tweets afterwards.
What concerns me most is not this debate over backup singers, but rather the aggressive lashing out because the “fans” seem to know what’s best for the group, especially when there’s no consensus. It’s hard to really tell what the majority of total fans is on a given topic, but Ants and social media have now enabled the vocal and active (possible minority of) fans to act as a mouthpiece for the fan base at large, which is unfortunate. Ladies aside, it’s this odd, almost nonsensical battle over “authenticity” of eras that’s led to such partisanship and division, which ultimately begs the question What makes a fan?
Is a fan someone who blindly follows an artist or group? Meh, that’s one way of looking at it. DMB has done a number of things I dislike (e.g., not kicking Boyd in the ass). And, speaking of setlist complaints, there are a number of songs I’d be fine to never hear again live, such as “All Along The Watchtower,” “Everyday,” “Satellite,” and I agree with Ants that “Jimi Thing” could be given a rest. (The two Boyd solos in “Jimi Thing” are difficult for me these days.) But I know that I can’t wish them away, and I’m not going to pummel the band with requests. I still go to shows every tour, and I don’t have a bad time if one of the aforementioned tunes are played. And yes, I chase songs as much as the next fan, but I’m still enjoying myself in the moment. Not out of some misguided blind faith, but rather because it’s a great band that continues to deliver (yes, some shows are better than others) night after night, year after year. I understand that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. But does than mean to commit a coup d’état whenever one doesn’t get his or her way? Most AntsMarching Podcast episodes, you’d be surprised to know that editors Matt and Jake actually like the band, since they mostly just complain about how awful various shows and set lists they’ve seen.
Do I have an answer? Of course not, other than perhaps to tone things down a bit. There has to be some sort of happy medium between blind faith (which is abhorrent) and “the customer (fan) is always right.” To quote the great and wise Larry David, “In fact, the customer is usually a moron and an asshole.”
[Yes, I've now successfully linked the Larry David canon to both Wagner and DMB.]
The Larry David quote is of course humorous and a bit much, but he has a point. No, I wouldn’t be happy if the band “played the phonebook” (a DMB community meme this summer), and I’ve never thought that. But I’m not about to let the perfect be the enemy of the good either.