Jun 072011

Live Trax 20 cover

This year as part of the thank-you package for renewing my membership in the Dave Matthews Band fan club they thoughtfully included a copy of the latest release in the band’s Live Trax series. Volume Twenty is a recording of a concert from 8/19/1993 at the Wetlands Preserve in New York City. This makes it the earliest official release of concert material from the band, and as such is extremely exciting.

To a certain segment of fans, early Dave Matthews Band concerts are the stuff of legend (possibly quite a large segment, I’m don’t bother to fully keep up with knowledge of the casual fan). The catalog of songs they are drawing on is smaller; but there is a looseness to the performances that you can only get from talented bands on the rise. There’s a reason the series is called Live Trax after all (Trax being one of the two Charlottesville clubs the band frequently played in their early days). However, up until now those first few years were not represented in the band’s live release catalog. Live Trax 20 changes all that. While it’s not one of the legendary performances from Floodzone or the aforementioned Trax that established the band, it is still very much the young DMB, and a welcome release.

The two disc set is stuffed with all the classic songs played with verve and and freshness. Instead of each the roar of the crowd in appreciation of each new song you some enthusiastic cheering, but mostly polite applause from the small crowd. And much to my delight you can even make out the sound of beer bottles clinking together in the background — this is certainly the only time that I will ever say that, that sort of extraneous noise on the recordings I make drive me to distraction. One other quirk to the set that highlights this “newness” is the performance of Ants Marching. Ants is now the band’s signature song, the song that closes the show and brings the crowd to their feet. But in this recording it’s just the song they play second in the set with no fanfare, not even the snare intro. Given the hundreds of times I’ve heard the current version with all it’s ornamentation, to listen to the bare song again is revelatory. The same holds true for the rest of the songs. When I said before these were the classics I was not exaggerating. The seventeen song setlist is nothing but the songs that build the band’s reputation and none of the material that fell by the wayside (Spotlight I’m looking at you). And like Ants Marching they come across almost like demos of the songs we know now: there’s no extended stop-time introduction to Warehouse, Dancing Nancies is played after Warehouse, etc.

However, the high point of the release is the collaboration with Warren Haynes. As Tim Reynolds continually proves, Dave Matthews Band’s music is always improved with an electric guitar, and Warren is no exception. This is quite possibly the second time Haynes ever performed with the band, and yet his chemistry with them is already evident, which probably says more about Haynes’ ability to blend with other players. What makes this guest spot special is that instead of simply sitting in on Watchtower (which he does), he sticks around and lends a hand on Dancing Nancies, Typical Situation, and most impressively on Blue Water. Unlike the rest of the set, Blue Water is one of the “forgotten” songs in the band’s catalog. From time to time it gets teased during a show, but the full song just does not get played anymore. There is a reason for that of course, it’s not very good, too shapeless and indistinct to be worth much. But with Warren that doesn’t really matter; the duet he shares with Boyd, a slow burn blues riff, is tremendous. By the time Stefan and Carter come in it’s built into a gem of a performance that reminds you how good the band, and Warren, can be, and makes me wish I was actually there to witness it. It’s probably the best rendition of Blue Water ever, and definitely the high point of the show.

My only complaint is that the recording removes all of the space between (see what I did there?) the songs. That’s a shame because Dave’s banter during those early shows was part of the band’s initial charm. At one point Dave thanks the crowd for showing up and comments that “There are more of you here tonight than last time,” and asks them to go out and spread the word if they were so inclined. This band is just a year away from releasing their major label debut, in five years they are going to sell out Giant’s Stadium and outsell the Titanic soundtrack (for a week). All that is about to happen, and here’s Dave thanking the couple hundred people who bothered to show up at a club in New York City to see a weird band from Virginia. That is the intrinsic appeal of this sort of release and not including more of his interplay with the audience diminishes the document. Assuming there was more, I’ve never heard the tape from this show that’s been circulating.

That objection aside Live Trax 20 is a vital release for anyone who considers them self even a casual fan of Dave Matthews Band. To the people who were there it’s a nostalgic look back, and to the newer fans who only know the massive enterprise that is now DMB it’s a look at how good the band was (and occasionally still is). I’ve often said that if I had a time machine I’d use it to see all the bands I love back when they’re starting out. I won’t say anything trite like this recording accomplishes that, but until I find a TARDIS it’s the best I’ve got.

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