Concert Review: The Dave Matthews Band, Ben Harper (Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, New York, June 11, 1996)

As I joined the throng surging toward SPAC like some sugar-cane crazed swarm of dancing army ants, I realized how obscurely focused I had become in my Clubland Critter-dom; my wildest joint-conditioned expectations on the size of the crowd that would gather to see the Dave Matthews Band fell way short of reality. Frankly, I don’t think anyone who wallows in musica obscura (like me) can truly comprehend just how big “triple platinum” is without going to see the humanity drawn by such high-sales artists. Have you ever watched Carl Sagan trying to explain the vastness of space on PBS? This concert was a similarly-themed exercise in expanding my sense of scale (although no one from PBS asked me for money when it was over) that’s going to make me re-examine my motives the next time I go see Corpuscular Death Scrapple with a like-minded audience that can be numbered in the ones.

All philosophizing aside, the Dave Matthews Band gave the enthusiastic thousands massed before them a smashing evening of music that brilliantly balanced on the artistic razor’s edge where catchiness and complexity meet. Standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge structures were replaced with things like bridge/bridge/bridge/chorus/bridge — but since a bridge is a here-to-there enabler, these structures gave even the lengthiest works a tremendous sense of propulsive purposefulness. Material from the band’s latest album, Crash, came across particularly well: “Drive In, Drive Out” featured an excellent rougher-than-in-the-studio vocal; Matthews put “Too Much” into a political perspective that should have had poor Uncle Sam Wilson spinning in his Troy grave; drummer Carter Beauford added emotional depth to “So Much to Say” by weaving his warm backing vocals with Matthews’ voice (a formidable tool itself, incorporating a Brian Wilson falsetto, a Sting mid-range and a John Cale baritone into one ever-fluid whole).

Matthews interacted more with Beauford that with his other stage partners; their scat vocal/guitar/drum bonds anchored the band’s groove, with Matthews’ bright, clattery guitar often filling the same sonic spaces as Beauford’s cymbals. Bassist Stefan Lessard was then able to enhance the groove with touch and style, actually working with his bass instead of trying to kill it by beating it to death with his thumb. Finally, violinist Boyd Tinsley and sax/flute-man LeRoi Moore filled in the spaces between, beneath, around and through their bandmates’ notes–during the evening’s first two songs (“Best of What’s Around” and “Two Step”) they alternated parts, but then fully joined their (instrumental) voices with Matthews’ (human) voice during “Crash Into You”. It was the evening’s first transcendent moment. It was worth the wait. As the concert boiled to a head with “#36”, “Ants Marching” and (encore) “All Along the Watchtower”, I left my seat and wandered through the blanket/body landscape surrounding the pavilion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many happy people in one place before, which has gotta be worth something–and is probably (when all is said and done) a truer measure of the Dave Matthews Band’s effectiveness than any description I could offer on specific events that took place on-stage.

Opener Ben Harper also seemed to make people happy. He even sounded good to me as I navigated the treacherous Dan’l Boone Wilderness Trail behind the pavilion (Constant Legal Companion intoning “Were I their lawyer, I’d counsel them to . . .” all the while), then entered a ticket-window press more severe than any mosh-pit I’ve been in, then endured the agent not being able to reconcile my Driver’s License to the will-call list. (“Hey… if your License said ‘John E. Smith’ you’d go by J. Eric too!”). Harper wrapped up about the time I actually penetrated the pavilion; more fool me for thinking my Clubland Critter schedule would work at SPAC.

See Also: Interview with Dave Matthews (1997)

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