August 20th, 2008
Even if it had been a merely half-hearted performance – which it wasn't, not even close, though who'd have blamed 'em if it were? – Tuesday's inspired show at Staples Center would still linger long in Dave Matthews Band lore.
For this, sadly, was the night the group played a nearly three-hour elegy for its fallen brother, LeRoi Moore.
You could tell something was different – something wasn't quite right – from the way Matthews approached the microphone after opening with a tremendous roar through "Bartender." Clearly striving for some sort of grieving catharsis during that track's dozen-minute running time, eventually achieving a high-pitched, hollered fervency like I haven't felt shake my soul since Bono was in his prime, he suddenly looked sullen, sad-eyed, kinda lost – yet at the same time all business, as if out to impress.
"We got some bad news today," he told the quickly quieted crowd. It was a heavy blow: Saxophonist and founding member Moore – DMB's own Clarence Clemons – who had suffered health complications ever since sustaining serious injuries from an ATV crash on his Virginia farm in late June, had died earlier that afternoon at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles, not far from where the band would play hours later. He was 46.
"(He) gave up his ghost today," Matthews said matter-of-factly, "and we will miss him forever."
That Matthews and his mates were able to soldier on so valiantly with an often profoundly moving and largely unsentimental performance wasn't just admirable – it was downright astonishing. What's more, it spoke to the inexplicable but immense healing power of live music.
"We're gonna raise our spirits up a little bit," the generally easygoing but this night stoic icon explained to the crowd after finding his smile as "Proudest Monkey" smoothly dovetailed into the roiling syncopated figure of "Satellite" and drummer Carter Beauford started letting the spirit stir him. "It's always easier to leave than to be left," he pointed out. And yet, as he acknowledged later in the set, before a hearty cover of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," "There's nowhere I'd rather be than with my family on stage."
Naturally, the band turned the evening into a de facto tribute to Moore – something it has done at tour stops all summer, actually. But now there was a shift in tone: Where before heavier moments were meant to conjure good vibes for the ailing Moore, here those epics took on a distinctly funereal tone.
Granted, little about the selections was outright dour. Though accompanied by the bleak visual of raindrops cascading down a window pane, the soaring, shining finale of "So Damn Lucky," for one, felt as if the glory of heaven were opening up before the musicians' eyes. The relatively new African-derived gospel groove "Eh Hee," meanwhile, arrived like a celebration of the circle of life, with an evil-slaying Matthews insisting he'll "drop the devil to his knees."
But then there was the added resonance to the hopefulness that emerges amid the identity-crisis storm of "Dancing Nancies." There was the Johannesburg lull of "Water into Wine" to bring a tear – and there was Tim Reynolds' solos on "Proudest Monkey" and the closing "Two Step," yearning wailing like you get from Nils Lofgren on a good night, to do the crying for us.
There was the parting sorrow of the rarely aired "Loving Wings" and the baptismal cleansing of "The Maker." (The hypnotic refrain "river, rise from your sleep" that concludes that latter piece was as calming as a Ladysmith Black Mambazo lullaby.) Then there was the most wrenching moment of all, at least for me, when the ensemble dusted off "The Dreaming Tree," a moody epic that recalls the elegiac intensity of Sting's "The Soul Cages."
And yet this hardly came across like a strictly solemn occasion. How could it when Matthews also led his group (including Moore's ace replacement, Jeff Coffin from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) through the stress-relieving exaltation of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" and the skin-shedding funk of Gabriel's "Sledgehammer"? How could it when for all its introverted indulgence it also made room for crowd-pleasers like "Crash into Me" and "Ants Marching" and the all-you-need-is-love optimism of "Everyday"?
"That's professionalism," I heard one fan say to another outside afterward. Yes, but there was more than the-show-must-go-on determination happening here. Who can know what Matthews, Beauford, fiddler Boyd Tinsley and bassist Stefan Lessard were remembering and feeling and mourning in song after song? What was evident in their joyful noise this night, though, was just how much staggering on stage with battered hearts might have been their only option.
Remember: They had spent the better part of two decades making music with Moore; this is how they related to one another most. First time Matthews heard Moore play, he recalled as the encore began, was in a bar in Virginia: "He leapt on the cash register – 'cause standing had become something of a chore at that point. And he played the most beautiful rendition of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' I've ever heard.
"If I could, I would," he added, as if to say why he wouldn't attempt it, before instead offering a haunting rendition of his own "Sister." Indeed, all that he – and they – could do here was richly revive some of Moore's favorite songs, disappear into their frameworks, savor lyrics that now had new meaning – and deliver the emotional immediacy the moment demanded.
It was brave, it was brilliant – it was a performance unlike any I've ever seen Dave Matthews Band give.