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Live in Noblesville, IN 6/29/2019
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Live in Noblesville, IN 6/29/2019

Kicking off with a rare instrumental that references “Also sprach Zarathustra” and concluding via a segue from “Two Step” into “Ants Marching,” Dave Matthews Band finds a higher gear at this 2019 summer show from Deer Creek, Indiana.

Come for the Party, Stay for Musical Geek-Out

4 Min Read

On its early tours, the Dave Matthews Band was the approachable, “sensitive” jam band that didn’t jam hard enough or long enough.

Then college kids discovered that its music paired well with alcohol. In short order, the Dave Matthews Band developed a foundational, and extraordinarily loyal, fan base in college towns and frat houses across the United States. The party vibe at its shows earned scorn from critics and music business veterans.

As the band outgrew theaters, then arenas, and began to comfortably sell out stadiums and massive outdoor venues, the success brought a steady, simmering backlash. In multiple reviews and stories around the release of its 2018 album “Come Tomorrow,” a single withering phrase turned up time and again: “Dad rock.”

There is, however, one place where it’s really not possible to snipe at the Dave Matthews Band: The stage. When these musicians go to work, as they do on the ordinary June night in Indianapolis in 2019 captured here, questions of relevance or pop-culture hotness are instantly zeroed out. Rendered irrelevant by seven unassuming players with keen instincts for developing, and sustaining, an ongoing and unscripted musical discussion.

DMB makes a nightly argument for old fashioned notions — like group cohesion and interplay — as portals to transcendence.

This collective pursuit involves a sensitivity to the unfolding moment, reflexes tuned to lead one minute and follow the next. It requires a bit of musical sophistication on the part of the players. Hate on the Dave Matthews Band all you want, but give the members this much: These guys show up ready for a thrill ride, and they use every device in an overstuffed trickbag — from drummer Carter Beauford’s muscular yet elastic timekeeping to a light show that reacts to every ripple — to bring along whoever might be within earshot. Performing in places where click tracks and computerized lighting rigs and line dancers usually reign, DMB makes a nightly argument for old fashioned notions — like group cohesion and interplay — as portals to transcendence.

So it was in Noblesville, early in the band’s second night at the former Deer Creek amphitheater, on a tune called “Louisiana Bayou.” It’s a medium-tempo funk pocket ideal for unlocking the hips of the uptight, and after the verses, keyboardist Buddy Strong casually begins a solo. One dinky phrase at a time, he starts by furtively pawing at the Hammond organ. Pretty soon he digs in, thinking rhythmically. Church flourishes follow, and then Strong begins leaning hard on big, screaming, two-handed chords. Beauford and the others pick up on the surging energy, and after that, Strong just needs to sustain the chord to get the band levitating. (After a similar episode a month later on this tour, Matthews could be seen repeatedly shaking his head while simply pointing at Strong.)

The extreme closeups, likely taken from the in-house video feed beamed to screens on the distant lawn, offer clues about how the Dave Matthews Band cultivates interactivity. There’s lots of eye contact, for starters: When a camera finds Beauford, for example, it’s possible to see, even through a mountain of drum gear, where he’s looking. (The only inscrutable one is guitarist Tim Reynolds, who keeps his shades on even after the sun sets.) Still, almost all of the cues are in the music itself, and it’s possible to watch the players listening for them, intently following the arc of each solo while gingerly contributing to the alchemy of the groove. 

Nobody crowds the spotlight: You focus on the musicians doing the unglamorous work of executing their specific parts, then step back and marvel at how those parts gather into a behemoth wave, roaring and lively as it crests. With DMB, the lure isn’t just what happens at the peak — it’s about the slow on-ramps, the arrivals and departures and often bumpy detours along the way. (One of this show’s memorable journeys happens on “Warehouse,” during a jaw-dropping Reynolds solo that veers from abrasive metal chording to note-drunk eruptions of prog-rock intricacy.)

Especially for veteran musicians, performance can sometimes become a rote thing — we’ve all caught a rhythm guitarist looking momentarily bored on the Jumbotron while fireworks erupt all around him. That doesn’t happen much with the Dave Matthews Band. The edit of this performance might depend a bit too much on close-up images, but those make one thing abundantly clear: Everyone involved on stage is involved, all in, immersed. The music demands that — its hiccups and time changes only work when executed with authority. That’s another reason this unlikely stadium act remains so interesting: It operates on several levels at once, without pandering. It captivates those just out to drink and dance while also enchanting those seeking a Zappa-style music-geek peak experience. And everyone in between.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die” (Workman Publishing) and a contributor to other books, including “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Final Four of Everything.” Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988-2004, and has been a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered since 1995. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times, Jazz Times, NPR Music, Blender, Spin, Vibe, Harp and other publications. Among his awards are two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Journalism awards. Trained as a saxophonist at the University of Miami school of music, Moon’s music credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra. He returned to active music-making in 2012 in the Philadelphia area. Moon recently launched Echo Locator, a newsletter devoted to nearly vanished sounds, spirits, ideas and recordings.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die” (Workman Publishing) and a contributor to other books, including “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Final Four of Everything.” Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988-2004, and has been a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered since 1995. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times, Jazz Times, NPR Music, Blender, Spin, Vibe, Harp and other publications. Among his awards are two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Journalism awards. Trained as a saxophonist at the University of Miami school of music, Moon’s music credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra. He returned to active music-making in 2012 in the Philadelphia area. Moon recently launched Echo Locator, a newsletter devoted to nearly vanished sounds, spirits, ideas and recordings.

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