The Dave Matthews Band has worked hard to cultivate a reputation that they are a band who cares about their fans. Unsurprisingly, the DMB used their popularity to turn the New York leg of their summer tour into a weekend festival that would present established acts like the Barenaked Ladies and the Black Eyed Peas and give exposure to wonderful new burgeoning superstars like Ray Lamontagne and Robert Randolph & The Family Band. While the DMB should be commended for putting together a terrific slate of performers, their choice of venue was horrific. On this last weekend in July, the Dave Matthews Band showed not love and respect for their fans but rather complete and utter disdain for their audience’s concert-going experience.
DMB billed their weekend shows at New York City’s Randall’s Island, an inconvenient and relatively inaccessible venue, as an Island Getaway. Although they created a viable festival atmosphere, complete with a wide variety of food and beverages, the resemblance to any proper lawn concert ended there. Notably, there was no lawn! Concert-goers with general admission lawn seats, who were forbidden from bringing beach chairs and the like, were offered a large expanse of dirt for their blankets. Within moments of claiming a patch of dusty earth, each blanket and its occupants were immediately covered with the dirt kicked up by the breeze or tramped onto them by other people ambling through the grounds. Those who seated themselves to the rear of the lawn were forced to watch the bands through a Pig-Pen like quarter mile dust cloud that defiantly hovered over the crowd. This weekend’s badge of courage is surely a hacking case of “brown-lung.”
Inversely proportional to the excessive number of food and drink vendors were the number of garbage cans. Those that did exist quickly overflowed and were rendered useless by 3:00 in the afternoon. Rather than create garbage mounds in the vicinity of the cans, fans simply dropped their refuse at their feet. If your ideal concert experience involves sitting and standing amongst garbage, this weekend was made just for you.
For the right to sit in dirt and garbage to catch the faintest sight of the bands onstage, Dave Matthews charged his beloved and adored fans $54.50 apiece – with an additional $9.60 if you purchased them through Ticketmaster. Anyone who still believes that Dave Matthews and his band love their New York fans deserves a punch in their nose, a kick in the stomach and the most egregious of atomic wedgies.
The Dave Matthews Band does attract a mighty crowd, and deservedly so. I am sure the majority of the thousands of fans that were drawn to the shows mistakenly imagine themselves as children of the Deadheads. With exceptions, this scene falls far short of embodying the camaraderie and compassion of the Dead crowds. A Dave Matthews fan will just as soon stomp you into the ground as share his joint with you. Scratch that, DMB fans don’t share their weed with anyone. The Daveheads are also well equipped and proficient with their cell phones. While useful for finding your friends if you get separated, the mobiles have led to a disconcerting proliferation of phone calls to friends to tell them what they’re missing at the show.
Given all the venue’s annoyances, and there were many, the music was well worth it. Each night’s concert was apropos to the weather. Saturday was hot and humid so DMB kept the music upbeat, giving the crowd a reason to sweat with Matthews and violinist Boyd Tinsley cranking up classics like “Tripping Billies” and “Warehouse”. Sunday night was cooler with a nice breeze and Leroi Moore’s sax solos were the centerpiece of a laid back and relaxed show that featured a beautiful rendition of Under The Table And Dreaming’s “#34″.
Ever the gracious hosts, DMB invited Robert Randolph onstage to close out both shows. Imbuing the band with what seems to be an endless reserve of enthusiasm, he was the center of gravity for Tinsley and Matthews during Saturday’s blistering version of Stand Up‘s “Louisiana Bayou”. The next night, Randolph emerged for the news album’s titular “Stand Up” and remained on stage for the band’s warhorse cover of “All Along The Watchtower”. After Matthew’s dreary intro, Randolph was handed the entire song and nearly set his pedal steel on fire with his scorching solo. Randolph was not the only guest in the house. Phish’s Trey Anastasio appeared onstage on Saturday and helped give “Jimi Thing” an exciting 20 minute workout that included an extended intro incorporating Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”. Putting on airs for the important guest, every member of the band amped up their game with Trey on stage.
The arrangements of most DMB songs are not simple and Carter Beauford does an amazing and usually underappreciated job of anchoring the band. Over the course of the weekend, each band member was given time to shine. Tinsley, shredding strings, literally and figuratively took center stage during Dancing Nancies. Sunday’s encore of “Seek Up” featured bassist Stefan Lessard and Leroi Moore, who soloed often throughout the night.
The only change in the weekend’s lineup was the penultimate act in which the Barenaked Ladies narrowly edged the Black Eyed Peas in the battle to shameless suck up to Dave Matthews. With every rap, the Ladies and the Peas worked in references to the headliner. Unsurprisingly, the Barenaked Ladies crafted the more entertaining and witty freestyle references, with Ed Robertson winning significant brownnosing points for incorporating and plugging Matthews’ appearance in Because of Winn-Dixie.
Outside of currying favor, the Saturday concert was greatly improved by the Ladies’ presence. Aware that they had a stadium to entertain, BNL made sure to mix their well-known songs like “One Week”, complete with Chicken Dance, and the always popular lottery promoting “If I Had $1,000,000″ with the idiosyncratic “Pinch Me” and the weepy ballad “Break Your Heart”. They also got huge bonus points by acknowledging the back of the crowd.
The Peas appearance at this show, as well as others on the upcoming tour, is a troubling proposition. Your thoughts on whether the Black Eyed Peas belong on the same bill as Dave Matthews depends upon your thoughts of where DMB sits on the musical landscape. If you think of them as an offshoot of the jamband scene, then the Peas are sorely out of place; but, if you think of them as a Top 40 radio darling, then the Peas are right at home.
It is the Peas’ Top 40 leanings that fail them in an expansive setting. The Peas are essentially four average singers and none of them have a strong voice like Mariah Carey or the charisma of Bruce Springsteen to keep the interest of a stadium audience. To put a band behind them that could keep the interest of the back rows would be to upstage the stars of this act and obviously there is no chance of that occurring. The Peas tried to play reggae, 70′s funk, blues and surf rock, succeeding only in presenting a generic, homogenized version of music ill-suited to the band’s strengths.
While not inspiring the audience to wonder whatever happened to the Fugees, the Peas offered an overly simplistic but well intentioned rationalization that our gathering together to listen to music was an effective way to battle the evils of terrorism. They then immediately implored us all to “get retarded.” Quite possibly, they wanted company.
Ray Lamontagne, looking very shaggy and a bit uncomfortable in the midday sun, was the star of the side stage. Lamontagne’s warm and intimate songs, which are better suited to a candlelit late night listen with a friendly companion, were not especially suited to the brightly lit open-air venue. However, there is no denying the power and emotion of Lamontagne’s wonderful, emotional Van Morrison-esque songs.
Every bit the musician that he is not a performer, Lamontagne opened both sets with his yearning heartfelt ballad Burn. Plagued by an apathetic audience and apparent sound problems on Saturday, Lamontagne unnecessarily apologized to the audience, feeling he was having a bad day and that he shouldn’t be up there. With a more appreciative audience on Sunday, Lamontagne played a longer set, closing with “Danielle”, a new song which held its own with any other rocker played that day.
After Lamontagne closed the side stage, Jem and Mike Doughty performing earlier, the focus moved to the grand main stage and Robert Randolph & The Family Band. Randolph’s set has evolved but not changed much over the past 18 months. Although they clearly know what gets the crowd on their feet, Randolph & the Band run the risk of becoming a cliché by overusing the stage tricks that are currently endearing them to fans everywhere.
On this weekend, Randolph shuffled the set list but retained the core elements that have become trademarks of his shows. Drummer Marcus Randolph and bassist Danyel Morgan seemed to relish the opportunity to dive into the rhythm sections of the now obligatory Michael Jackson cover. In a sly nod to the “Hendrix of the pedal steel guitar” raves, Robert Randolph always makes sure to include a scorching rendition of “Voodoo Chile” or “Purple Haze”. Saturday’s performance closed with Unclassified‘s “Nobody”, during which Randolph and his cousins took turns playing each other’s instruments. Just to show that they truly could switch off at will, they did it again on Sunday during the gospel inspired “I Don’t Know What You Come To Do”.
It is a shame that the weekend’s concerts were marred by the abysmal conditions of the venue because the music, for the most part was fantastic. It is an even worse shame that most of Matthews’ fans consider these conditions acceptable and felt no compunction about spending a ten-hour day in a scene straight out of The Grapes Of Wrath. If his fans will sit through this, you can expect the New York leg of the 2006 Dave Matthews Band tour to take place in a Staten Island landfill.