Photo: John Waters
“Who starts a tour at Madison Square Garden?”
Apparently when you are Dave Matthews Band, the answer is, well, you. Returning to the last venue the band played at the close of their 2008 tour, the band kick started their 2009 tour with a set that could really only be described as epic. There was a definite underlying theme to the night celebrating both the release of their upcoming album Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, and the life and spirit of LeRoi Moore, whose presence was definitely felt throughout the evening.
Before I get too far into the main event, I’ve got to give some love to Philadelphia’s Legendary Roots Crew. Folks that follow Questlove on twitter know that Tuesday was a busy day for the band running from their ‘day job’ at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to The Garden and then to their weekly gig at Highline. My wife Christine and I met up with some friends and fellow DMB fans before the show for drinks and dinner, and it was Questlove’s tweet that let us know it was time to head over. Still dressed in their late night gear the band absolutely killed it, wasting not a single second to silence or typical between song banter. From Led Zeppelin to R&B to Hip-Hop the group did not miss a beat blending it all into a tasty gumbo. Highlights for me came at guitarists Captain Kirk Douglas’ take on Cody ChestnuTT‘s “The Seed (2.0)” hook, Black Thought’s absolute mastery on the mic and percussionist Frankie Knuckles leading the band through dance routines Jerome Benton-style.
Photo: John Waters
Seated behind the stage we could clearly view the activity taking place as the road crew set up the curtains and prepped the stage. Dave sauntered out and pumped his fists jumping up and down for those of us who could see him and the band warmed up the intro to “Don’t Drink the Water” from their 1998 classic Before These Crowded Streets. For as many times as I’ve heard “Don’t Drink the Water” (and this marks the third consecutive time I’ve heard it as a show opener) it never wears. The “This Land is Your Land” tag elicited a roar from the crowd as he used Woody Guthrie‘s words to supplement his own toasting the “New York Island”. Following closely was the tour staple “Corn Bread”, a salacious little bit of country fried funk that inspired Dave to choreograph his own brand of dance to a fury that I’ve not seen since James Brown sat in with the band a few years back. The band launched into the first of three new tracks from Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, “Funny the Way It Is” (which had been released for free earlier in the day) to an audience already singing back to them.
The first sign that this was not to be just another tour kick-off was the appearance of “Raven” from Busted Stuff which has not been performed by the band since 2006. Building on the momentum the band tore through an amped up version of “You Might Die Trying” from 2005’s Stand Up. Guitarist Tim Reynolds delivered his exclusive brand of fret board gymnastics and made it look easy. The second debut came with the mid-tempo “Spaceman” which juxtaposed Dave’s scat like vocals against a gently rolling groove. This one definitely has potential…
I’m not all there, I’m a faithful sinner
I might get lost, but I’ll be home for dinner
If God don’t like me, he can hand me to hell
Not coming home till the good day’s gone
Working as hard, as the day is long
Working men watch me, when I get home
“Dancing Nancies” from the bands label debut Under the Table and Dreaming segued nicely into “Pig” both of which prominently featured violinist Boyd Tinsley‘s soulful violin. I’m not certain if Boyd’s new violin is a more traditional build than his original custom model, but its tone was sweeter and harmonic and his turns driving the ship were all the better for it. As the crew brought an additional microphone onto the stage Dave welcomed Gregg Allman (who just “happened to be in town”) up to run through the classic “Melissa” with Gregg and Dave trading verses.
On any other night this would be a showstopper, but the night was young and far from being over. After running through old school fan favorites “Recently”, and the sadly ironic “So Damn Lucky” the band switched gears for the dark “#27”. Dave introduced the final new track of the evening with a tribute to the bands fallen member LeRoi Moore with the emotional and decidedly heavy “Why I Am”.
Still here dancing with the Groogrux king
Will be drinking big whiskey, while we dance and sing
When my story ends, it’s gonna end with him
Heaven or hell, I’m going there with the Groogrux king
From there the band turned up the tempo with a killer version of the anathematic “Ants Marching”. At moments I could not tell you who was louder, the band or the crowd the 20,000 strong sang along every single word. Almost certain that the set was ending the band surprised me by launching into a powerful “#41” featuring saxophonist Jeff Coffin‘s first step into the spotlight of the night. His solo was delivered with such ferocity that it was almost as if he were blowing The Garden down himself. The “Sojourn of Arjuna” interpolation with Coffin and Rashawn Ross on trumpet adds a new twist to the classic and Reynolds again lends soaring leads to the mix of the 17-plus minutes of jamming.
At the close I said to myself that if they ended the show here I’d be happy, but as notes faded the familiar strum of “Two Step” brought the crowd to an absolute frenzy. The entire band traded measures with each and every member showcasing their immense talent. Starting with a restrained but powerful lead by bassist Stefan Lessard and wrapping with 4 plus minutes of percussive bliss courtesy of Carter Beauford, the band kept it going for nearly another 20 minutes before leaving the stage for a quick breather. Dave returned with Tim, Carter and Rashawn for the touching “Sister”, and the rest of the band came back to close the set with the joyful “Tripping Billies”.
As Christine and I made our way back to Grand Central in the pouring rain, we commented to each other on just how extraordinary a show we just witnessed, and quickly rattled back and forth our highlights. It was an emotional experience seeing the band without LeRoi, but it was clear that this night was a celebration of his life, his songs, and his spirit that the band is clearly carrying forward with them.
Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden
New York, New York
April 14, 2009
Don’t Drink the Water
Funny the Way It Is
You Might Die Trying
Melissa (w/Gregg Allman)
So Damn Lucky
Why I Am
*It’s not great, but it’s something…
Dave Matthews Band – Funny the Way It Is (live) (YouTube)
Pre-Order Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King: Amazon