Four years ago when the independent rock and roll band Dispatch performed its final concert in 2004 it was only fitting that the 100,000 plus that showed up in Boston from all over the world represented the largest audience to ever attend an unsigned group's performance. This was the band after all that sold 600,000 copies of its CDs without ever signing a record contract with a major label, hiring an agent, or doing any of the other things supposedly necessary to be a success in the music industry.
What the members did do was rely on the internet and people willing to download their songs and "share" them through sites like Napstar. While record companies were looking to shut these operations down, Dispatch was using them as a means of getting the band's music known all across the United States and creating a huge following. Without even having released an album the members would show up for gigs to discover that audiences already knew the lyrics to their songs.
Still I think even they must have been overwhelmed when all the tickets for a benefit concert for Zimbabwe at New York City's Madison Square Gardens (MSG) sold out in less then an hour; the hurriedly scheduled second did the same, and a third sold out in less than half an hour. After all it had been three years since the band members had last performed together and even longer then that since they had released any new material; that didn't stop them from selling 60,000 tickets in less then three hours.
Braddigan (the name drummer Brad Corrigan now uses) Chad Urmstom, and Pete Francis formed Dispatch in 1995 when they were all students at Middlebury College in Vermont. One of the first songs that Chad played for them was a piece called "Elias" named for a gardener he had met during a period spent living in Zimbabwe prior to attending the university. It was Chad's connection to the country that appears to have been the inspiration for them to do the benefit concerts.
To be honest I'd never heard of Dispatch before reading the press release that announced they planned to release a DVD culled from footage shot over the three days of concerts as part of their fund-raising efforts. What interested me was they were raising money for Zimbabwe, and I wanted to find out more about the band and their efforts. Dispatch Zimbabwe – Live At Madison Square Garden looked to be the way to accomplish both tasks at once.
As befits their independent status, the DVD was released on January 29, 2008 through the band's own Bomber Records in partnership with AEG Network Live and VDI Entertainment. The director — Danny Clinch and his Three On The Tree production company — has previous experience with music videos and shooting live concerts including a docu-concert of Pearl Jam's recent Italian tour. The 19 songs (plus four bonus tracks in the special features section) presented on this disc are more than enough for anybody to understand what made Dispatch so popular. They're bloody amazing.
Okay, that's not the most in depth critical analysis but it's the truth. I'm always slightly nervous about rock trios because the first thing the ensemble suggests to me is power chords and noise to compensate for the lack of instruments. That's definitely not the case with this trio. Sure they can play loud and fast when it's called for, but the members' preferred method of approach is to use intricate rhythms and great vocal harmonies to fill out the sound.
As each band member is a multi-instrumentalist, there was shuffling back and forth between guitar and bass on the part of Chad and Pete, and with Braddigan coming out from behind his drum set on occasion (unfortunately the press kit sent out with the advance DVD didn't include credits and I didn't catch the replacement drummer's name) to play guitar and contribute lead vocals, the band's sound continually underwent subtle shifts. Musically they sound as if they took a quick tour of Jamaica to pick up some Ska and Reggae licks, swung through New Orleans and New York and learned a little funk, stopped off in England to hear electric Blues from forty years ago, threw it all up in the air and grabbed which ever bit felt right for the moment.
On the surface that sounds as if it should be a right cacophony; maybe in the hands of lesser musicians it would have been, but these guys made it work. Now it may sound obvious, but the key is that these three guys genuinely listen to each other while they're playing. It doesn't hurt that none of them is the "lead," except in terms of who happens to be singing lead vocal at a particular moment. That means they all take equal responsibility for a songs success or failure.
Yet, what really makes these guys such a joy to watch is the complete lack of pretense and attitude. These guys couldn't do rock star casual, cool if you paid them. It's hard to tell who's more excited about the concert, them or their rabid fans. I don't remember the last time I've watched band members on stage actually look like they are having fun, while at the same time appreciating the magnitude of what they have accomplished. Exuberance seems like too tame a word to describe them on stage but since I can't think of anything else it will have to do.
Of course they played those concerts for a purpose those three nights back in July, to raise money for and awareness about the current situation in Zimbabwe. To help them out they had some special guests come in from Africa for the shows. Bongo Love is a percussion group whose members play traditional Zimbabwe instruments and they did two incredible numbers with the boys. But I think the ones who stole everybody's hearts were the kids from the African Children's Choir. Made up of children from three of Africa's hardest hit countries, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, they joined the band on stage for three songs and led the audience through participatory singing.
I've talked about the band members mainly as musicians to this point, but I don't think they would be half the performers they are if they weren't the people they are. During the special features sections of the DVD, and during the main feature, we get to see them interacting with each other and with others involved with the project. What struck me the most was the way the children in the choir reacted to them – every time they would see one of the band members their faces would light up in absolute joy as if he was the person they wanted to see most in the world.
Now I don't buy into the innocence of children or any of that crap, but I do know that no child will react in that manner, no matter how much you want them to, if it's not genuine. These weren't rock stars that they were in awe of or idolized, these were guys who inspired trust and love and you could see it in their eyes. Remember these children have grown up surrounded by poverty, the aftermath of genocide, and seen their communities ravaged by AIDS and are going to be far less likely to trust strangers than others. Yet they saw something in the three young men of Dispatch that made them feel safe. That says more about Dispatch's character than any accolades that any adult could say or list.
As I previously mentioned the special features of Dispatch Zimbabwe – Live At Madison Square Gardens contained some extra songs, but that's just the starting point. It also included a documentary feature on conditions in Zimbabwe, as well as a history of the country until this point. One of the most important points that's raised is that Zimbabwe is still a very young country. It was only in 1980 that they had managed to overthrow a government every bit as racist as South Africa's, so they are still experiencing the hardship of the transition from minority ownership of the majority of the land to a more equitable distribution.
It doesn't help matters that expatriate white Zimbabweans have taken to blaming the land reforms for the current economic crises and seem to be receiving a sympathetic hearing in Washington (The American government has imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe and increased them earlier this year)
Thankfully the people involved with Dispatch are independents and willing to chart their own path. Part of the special features also offers an explanation of what Dispatch is intending to do with the money they raised from the concerts and subsequent DVD sales. First of all, they've set up a charitable foundation which is where all the money is funneled. The foundation is researching Non Government Agencies at work in Zimbabwe that they think will put their money to best use. They don't want to tell people how to spend the money – instead they are looking for groups who have projects already up and running that could use monetary assistance to help meet their goals.
When the guys in Dispatch decided to do this concert it was with the hope that they could raise some money for Zimbabweans and also inform people of what was going on in the country as well. The concert was the first step, and now the DVD Dispatch Zimbabwe – Live At Madison Square Gardens is the next.
One thing is for certain though, whatever reason you buy the DVD for, you're in for a musical treat. For Dispatch fans who didn't make it to the show, you'll want to own this disc and for those like me who had never even heard of the band before, grab what might be a last chance to see what made them so special.
These three guys are quite simply a joy to watch and their music is a great listen. It's not too often that watching a pop concert can make me feel hopeful about the future, but I have to say Dispatch Zimbabwe – Live At Madison Square Garden did just that.