September 28th, 2006
in issue 0539 of the HooK.| By Vijith Assar
The tickets for Saturday night's event are labeled "Grand Opening"-- not entirely true, strictly speaking, but forgivable since this weekend's double-shot of DMB introduced Charlottesville's newest venue to at least twice as many fans as any other show it has scheduled for this season.
For 365 days out of the year, the John Paul Jones Arena will cast over 29N the sort of shadow that only a $130 million construction budget can create. It's a tremendous, state-of-the-art facility with the potential to be a fantastic host for both music and sports alike.
But on Saturday night, September 23, none of that matters. As Dave Matthews Band takes the stage for the second their two-night, first-time-in-five-years homecoming shows, drummer Carter Beauford announces himself with a single bass drum hit that vibrates the spleen only slightly less than it does the building, now cowering in fear as it's stripped of its grandeur by the band about to pulverize it.
Sorry, Jacko, but DMB eats venues like you for breakfast.
The ominous riff heralding "Seek Up" rings through the arena with the weight of a decade: it's been that long since the career-highlight take from Live At Red Rocks. It's an ultra-confident way of getting the evening rolling, and a message to the fans: "Oh yeah? Watch this."
Six minutes later, they're in the middle of a heavy, aggressive dissonant jam; these guys mean business. As LeRoi Moore delivers the tremendous opening sax riff of "Grey Street," the fabric backdrop behind the stage falls, revealing enormous projection screens with streaming images of the band.
Dave now towers 30 feet above the audience, Godzilla with a guitar. Then again, maybe he was already doing that. Either way, from every corner of the room, fans can now make out a subtle but unmistakable smile on his face.
Violinist Boyd Tinsley is silent for most of his time on stage, but when he plays, he absolutely erupts, getting as close to headbanging as one can while saddled with dreadlocks and a violin-- and darting about to visit each band member like a mischievous pixie. Other bands have dedicated dancers as part of the live production, but few seem to muster anything like Boyd's stage kinetics.
"Loving Wings" develops into an offbeat improv based on horn riffs that unexpectedly recall mariachi and calypso. Beauford's devious rhythmic games stop on a dime, quite a feat considering that he's juggling drumsticks and shakers, and quite a sight given that all the while he's nonchalantly blowing bubbles with his gum.
Perennial sound man and local guitar hero Joe Lawlor sits in, slinking his way through eight minutes of wah-drenched electric blues riffs as Dave sings, "If I Had It All."As 16,000 fans roar back, the thought occurs that maybe that's not a hypothetical.
"Smooth Rider" brings opener Robert Randolph back to the stage to sit in on pedal steel guitar as the second guest artist of the night; he's now traded his trademark fedora for a ridiculous UVA hat. Dave dons the same awkward headgear but raises Randolph one pair of indoor sunglasses; he howls like a banshee during what might just be the most intense vocal work thus far, all the while looking like one of the Blues Brothers.
Stomping his way through the end of "Louisiana Bayou," Randolph leaps around his pedal steel like a toad with ADHD and kicks his chair across the stage as he dances, by now a standard and rather predictable move. And then, in what will surely become a highlight for anyone with a sense of humor, he promptly proceeds to trip over it, landing flat on his tail in front of 32,000 incredulous eyes.
Much to his chagrin, the band decides to end on that note, hastily zipping off into the wings; the action, however, manages to turn guffaws into applause.
Though it's unfortunate that the encore has become so firmly entrenched as a feature of the modern concert production, this is a crowd that probably would have demanded one back when it still meant something. The upper heights of the arena seating flicker into a sea of cell phone fireflies, their wobbling and woozing contrapuntally balancing the stomping and chanting going on a little lower down.
Eventually, Matthews returns for solo acoustic delivery of "Butterfly," a song he completed for the 2005 movie Because of Winn-Dixie, explaining that he initially wrote it for his daughters but is dedicating it to his mom tonight. He's missing the harmonies periodically provided by Beauford, keyboardist Butch Taylor, and whale-of-a-man trumpet player Rashawn Ross, but in actuality the crowd tonight hasn't let him sing a single note unaccompanied.
When the rest of the band does return, the set list becomes a bit of a curve ball, with the intro to "American Baby." A two-minute half-thought from Stand Up, it becomes a prolonged jam featuring the only snare drum roll of the evening that actually seems to challenge Beauford. However, when a seemingly deranged attendee crawls onto the stage and approaches the lead singer, it segues abruptly into "Stay."
The Rolling Stones are the exit music as the house lights rekindle, serving as a rather blunt reminder of the surreal visit paid to Hook-ville by rock's most august royalty a year ago. That's when the realization sets in: we have these five to thank for all this. Charlottesville birthed DMB, and DMB birthed Charlottesville as the cultural epicenter that it has become. Great art can grow anywhere. Might as well be here.