When the Dave Matthews Band streams a Jacksonville, Florida concert through the Live Nation Channel on Yahoo Screen July 15, there may actually be a few fans seeing the group live for the first time. But for every one of those newbies, it’s safe to say, there’ll be about a hundred DMB diehards comparing the show with dozens upon dozens of other live appearances that have been burned into their memory banks thanks to the modern miracle of tape trading.
We can see the raves now: “They haven’t been this on fire since June 26, 2011!” “Completely on a par with 6.20.09!” “Awesome! Even if it was no 12/3/98!”
Yes, to be a true Dave Matthews Band fan is to have a facility with numbers that rivals your nerdy nephew who memorized the first 100 digits of pi. The group’s most transcendent moments are regularly debated, and usually identified by their positions on the calendar first, and the cities where they took place secondarily. Only a handful of other major rock acts — like Dylan, Springsteen, and Costello — change up their setlists enough from night to night to inspire that kind of obsessive devotion. But unlike those legends, who disallow audience taping, the DMB has been at the forefront of encouraging audience recordings, to the point of selling tickets for special taping-friendly sections near the soundboard.
Maybe only the Grateful Dead in their prime inspired the kind of fanaticism about wanting to be at every show that DMB fans also have. But nowadays it’s possible to be at every show without quitting your job and holding up a sign for “miracle tickets.” Matthews’ followers can share the love in a way Deadheads in their bootlegging prime never could — thanks to improved portable recording equipment, easier dissemination via the web, and clearer-headedness among all of (well, some of) those amateur engineers.
We hear about the music business being in trouble because of the ubiquity of product resulting in a lack of scarcity. But widespread availability of hundreds of shows doesn’t seem to have affected DMB followers’ need to document and obtain every on-stage moment. No legit act has released as many official live albums as Matthews and company have since the turn of the century. By the count of the DMBAlmanac.com site, there’ve been 77 official live releases from the band in all, between a handful of widely disseminated major-label concert albums, 30 more shows on CD in the self-released “LiveTrax” series, and still more gigs made available via the digital-only “DMBLive” series. Has this recent abundance of product slowed the traders down a bit? Not a whit, when no two shows are remotely alike.
It’s not just the setlist of each show that’s different, fans will tell you; it’s the ebb and flow and intensity. Only rarely will a concert stand out because of a guest star, since those are rare at DMB shows. Such a moment occurred when James Brown joined them at Madison Square Garden in 2002 for a performance of “Sex Machine.” Occasionally, there are memorable additions to the lineup; a few shows on their summer 2014 tour have featured a trio of backing singers commonly referred as “the ladies,” for the first time in over a decade — controversially, since some fans like their DMB gigs lady-free. But it’s never so much about who’s guesting on stage as what the perennial players are up to.
On their current tour, as of this writing, 23 shows have been performed so far, with a whopping 92 songs played over the course of those concerts. Unlike, say, a Springsteen show, where there’d be rioting instead of racing in the street if the Boss didn’t play “Born to Run,” no one song is a guarantee at a DMB concert. The two most consistently played songs this summer have been “Belly Belly” and “What Would You Say,” with 17 appearances each, followed by “Stolen Away on 55th & 3rd” and “Two Step” with 16 plays apiece. (As further evidence of how their proclivities change, “Stolen Away” hadn’t been played at all by the band since 2008 before becoming a favorite again this summer.) If you were hoping to hear the band’s covers of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” or Procul Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” you had to get lucky, as those have popped up only once each. You have a much better chance of hearing “Granny,” which has yet to be released on a studio album, but which they’ve played nine time so far this year.
Of course, you can follow all these setlist statistics at fan sites like antsmarching.org and DMBalmanac.com. But if you lack the patience to wait until a show actually ends to tally up which songs were played, you can download the app “DMB Live Setlist,” which is available for all the major smartphone platforms. If you set your alerts to “on,” you can have a message come up on screen announcing what song is being played in whatever city the group happens to be in that night. How many relationships have broken up because, in the middle of an important date, some dude interrupted a tender moment to shout: “Oh my God, they’re playing ‘Halloween’ right this second! Do you mind if we skip dessert so I can get home and look for the torrent?”
“Halloween” is a Holy Grail for DMB show attendees — often longed for, rarely delivered. No wonder that, when you look at the list of “top ranked shows since 2000” at the preeminent fan site antsmarching.org, an inordinate number of them include that tune… including 9/11/05 at Red Rocks in Colorado, 5/10/05 at Madison Square Garden, and 8/15/09 in West Palm Beach. Describing a June 2009 show in Pittsburgh, the site described a show “with both ‘Halloween’ and ‘Dreaming Tree.’ That’s like seeing a UFO crash into a unicorn.” Reading these remarks, a neophyte may begin to get an idea why Dave-heads trump even Deadheads.
And so much of the mania has to do with the taping-friendly policy, which continues to be a divisive subject in the industry. The DMB had a lock on the whole “If you give it away, they will come” philosophy years and decades before rampant freebies and streaming became the very model of the music business. It hardly works for everyone, when one song is satiation enough for most acts. Taper culture continues to be primarily dominant in jam-band circles, with the likes Phish, Widespread Panic, and O.A.R. also allowing the practice. Even with acts friendly to recording, policies vary. While the DMB sets aside a special section near the soundboard for fans who want to bust out their devices, hooking into the actual audio feed from that board is strictly forbidden. When the group gets around to officially releasing that show three or ten years into the future, they want it to sound a little better than the audience FLAC you already had.
Not everyone loves having an audience full of MP3 producers. Drive-By Truckers are one of those bands that allow taping. But former member Jason Isbell had a change of heart after he went solo and announced he would no longer permit it. “You’re supposed to go to a show and get drunk and get laid,” Isbell said in 2011. “You don’t get those things if you’re sitting there worried about your stereo line connection.”
Yet few rock fans are sorry to see the age of “You had to be there” give way to the era of “You can always have been there,” thanks to all those souls out there who do spend the show worried about monitoring their levels. And we know of a fan base that would say it is possible to be totally in the live moment and also thinking about how this “Ants Marching” stacks up against their first, 10th, or 75th “Ants Marching.”