Dave Matthews Band started off a rare winter tour last night at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ. If you’d only become a DMB fan so recently that all you’d heard was their latest album Away from the World, then you probably had the time of your life. Throughout the course of the 163-minute show, they played every song off it. If you were a longtime fan, however, especially one looking for a little joy after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, you probably walked out into the cold night air of the final minutes of November disappointed.
I purchased my tickets through Groupon because it was a deal I couldn’t pass up: $55 with ten going to Sandy relief. I’d only seen Dave & Tim at Farm Aid this year, so it was an obvious choice to meet the whole band with Jimmy Cliff supporting. We got to the venue early and had to wait in line. Security informed us, “Girls with pocketbooks in this line. Girls without pocketbooks here. Men in two lines here. Black people-- oh, who am I kidding?” (Last part is a joke, but it did feel weird to be separated even by gender.) We grabbed some overpriced food and took our seats up in the “Groupon section” 235.
A few minutes after 7pm, Dave Matthews came out on the stage and spoke into the microphone, “It’s a huge honor to share the stage with this man and this band. Mr. Jimmy Cliff.” Cliff and band got right to it like they did at Propsect Park in June with “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” Following with “Treat the Youths Right,” Cliff belied his 64 years, high-kicking his way through the whole song. The drums reverberated a lot in the mostly empty arena, but the horns were crisp and bright. Many of Cliff’s hits were absent, but he did perform his updated Afghanistan version of “Viet Nam” and a soulful “Many Rivers to Cross.” A welcome addition to the set was “Children’s Bread,” one of my favorites from his latest, Rebirth. We moved a little further down our row because the DMB fans in front of us had no respect for the reggae legend, talking loudly about bullshit. After a spirited “One More,” Jimmy and the band all grabbed drums and closed with a “Bongo Man/Rivers of Babylon” medley. Cliff’s female backup singer was really killing it on this, so hopefully you weren’t chatting over her.
The arena filled out, the lights dimmed, and Dave Matthews Band took the stage to three minutes of applause. Opening with the leadoff track to Away from the World, “Broken Things,” seemed a puzzling choice, the song’s live debut. “Belly Belly Nice” followed, picking things up just as it does on the album. “Hope everyone’s doing alright. Didn’t get too washed out recently,” Dave remarked. While some cheered, other patrons probably did get too washed out recently, creating quite an awkward moment for a benefit concert. No matter though, because they glossed it over with one of their oldest tunes, “Seek Up,” featuring an extended jam at its start.
Dave used the age-old technique of complimenting the crowd’s appearance to make up for his previous misstep. “This part of New Jersey right here is very good-looking,” he said, adding effeminately, “I wish I dressed better.” He improvised a little song about how he wished he’d dressed better, and led the band directly into “Don’t Drink the Water.” Recalling Sandy’s damaging storm surge, the song was even more powerful, and was my highlight of the night. But instead of riding that wave, Dave pulled things back. “My mama likes this song,” he admitted, strumming out the first chords of “Mercy.” From my vantage point, an exodus of fans to the bathrooms and concessions. For the girl braying along in front of me, perfection. Matthews finished the song at the piano, and stayed there for “Out of My Hands.” At its conclusion, Dave came center stage and remarked, “A little bit selfish. Thank you again everybody for indulging us.”
Okay, now it was time for a burner to get this show going. While it’s one of the best tracks on the new LP, “Gaucho” was not what I had in mind. Or the rest of the crowd for that matter, who looked even less into it. As a DMB virgin, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the fans, but usually die-hards in an arena go nuts for every song. However, glancing around the room, most were very still, or even seated. “Dancing Nancies” revived the crowd, and I was actually surprised to find out that many people like “Seven” a much as I do. “The Riff” came next, with some flute by Jeff Coffin and a nice guitar solo. “That’s my friend, Tim Reynolds,” Dave said, motioning to TR, wearing a Marvin the Martian shirt. Dave stood alone on the stage for a minute, and we anxiously waited for the next song. “I don’t know how this goes, but I’m gonna try it anyway,” he said, and performed the acoustic “Belly Full.” It was a sweet moment, but it was ruined for me, who discovered that some DMB fans talk during his songs, even yelling out “41!” in the middle.
“It’s the first show, shit. And I’m going crazy anyway,” Dave said. “Grey Street” couldn’t have come at a more welcome time. But then came three more AFTW songs. Finishing the set with the Dylan cover “All Along the Watchtower,” the line “No reason to get excited” stood out more than ever. It was finally time to get excited. Some cool video effects on the back screen transformed the band members into green and black outlines of themselves, with Boyd Tinsley’s spinning dreadlocks giving the whole thing a Predator vibe. After more than two hours onstage, the band departed, Carter Beauford throwing out more drumsticks than a KFC at the end of the night.
Five minutes later, Dave returned for a solo “The Space Between.” The band rejoined him for “Snow Outside,” which marked the completion of Away from the World. At the song’s end, they transitioned into “Two Step,” which aside from a monster solo by Reynolds, was a pretty standard version. I’d actually be more interested to see what Beauford could do on fewer drums.
After standing for almost three hours, I walked down the steep, vomit-covered steps, and outside into the bitter evening. A security guard by the lengthy line for fans to take buses back to the city revealed, “Everyone said it was a dud show.” I didn’t know what to think. I was never a huge DMB fan growing up. I kinda liked “What Would You Say” and “The Space Between,” but the band was pretty much a punchline for me. It wasn’t until I worked as an assistant editor on The Road to Big Whiskey documentary, watching hours of live footage of the band, that I really gained an appreciation for them. Now I have the mp3s of every studio album, the major live releases, a few Live Trax, and even the Big Whiskey vinyl. So I know a little bit about them even if this was my first show. The error in playing the entire Away from the World album last night was that it’s not suited for the Izod Center. DMB are used to playing summer tours, mainly outdoors, and last night they played an amphitheatre set in an arena. Gentler songs like “Sweet” and “Snow Outside” lend themselves more naturally to the outdoors, where you can drift your eyes upwards to the stars and feel the summer breeze in your hair. Sticking them in a concrete box muffles their grace under the echoes of the bass drum. Don’t get me wrong, some of the new songs were wonderful, like “If Only” with its horn-only dénouement. But to ignore most of your peppy back catalog, especially at a benefit show, where some fans were just victims of a horrible tragedy, is somewhat of a tragedy itself. If they’d announced they were going to be playing the entire album, it would’ve been a smarter move because then fans would’ve known what they were getting into. Sometimes when a wave knocks your house off its foundation, all you wanna hear is “Ants Marching.” Nevertheless, DMB are playing Izod again this evening, and tonight’s show is probably going to be badass.
(Thanks to Nicole Strawbridge for the phone pics, who was in the first row. She took some photos with her real camera too, and those will be posted tomorrow.)
JIMMY CLIFF – 11.30.12 – IZOD CENTER (42 minutes, 47 seconds)
You Can Get It If You Really Want / Treat the Youths Right > Rub-a-Dub Partner > Reggae Movement > Rub-a-Dub Partner / I Can See Clearly Now / Children’s Bread / Save Our Planet Earth / Afghanistan (Viet Nam) / Many Rivers to Cross / One More / Bongo Man > Rivers of Babylon > Bongo Man
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND – 11.30.12 – IZOD CENTER (2 hours, 43 minutes)
Broken Things / Belly Belly Nice / Seek Up / Wish I Dressed Better* > Don’t Drink the Water / Mercy / Out of My Hands / Gaucho / Sweet / Dancing Nancies / Seven / The Riff / Belly Full / Grey Street / If Only / Rooftop / Drunken Soldier / All Along the Watchtower
The Space Between / Snow Outside > Two Step