For the longest time I had been on this terrible HUMP with the Dave Matthews Band. My first impression, upon hearing “Ants Marching” on the radio in 1995 or so in elementary school, was, This is one crazy Blues Traveler song (maybe better than “Run-Around” and inferior to “Hook”). Then came the gaggle of “What Would You Say” spins which didn’t make much impression other than a lot of guitar doodling and a bear eating its own head (at least I think that’s what he said). It wasn’t ’til I’d have the CD Under the Table and Dreaming recommended to me and I’d go home and sink into deep listens of the pastoral, melodic “Satellite” and “Dancing Nancies” that this stuff would start to accumulate some meaning to me.
Well like a lot of people, around the late ’90s or so I got a tad bit sick of DMB. They were like Elvis, basically, combining a cult following with widespread commercial acclaim and notoriety. Sure, they’d come around sometimes with a tense stomper like “Don’t Drink the Water” which seemed channeled in from a dangerous artistic place, but then we’re back to cheese-pop with “Stay (Wasting Time)” and “Everyday,” so I told myself to indefinitely look elsewhere for my musical wizardry.
I must have picked up Under the Table and Dreaming again sometime around 2012 or so when I was having my own personal ’90s pop reawakening with albums like August and Everything after, Bringing down the Horse and All the Pain Money Can Buy. The first thing I think that strikes your right away on “The Best of What’s around” is just the VIBE of Matthews’ voice, like a welcoming portal into an aural land in which anything’s possible. I just learned a second ago via Wikipedia that Matthews was actually BORN in Johannesburg, South Africa (whereas I’d known the band originally convened in Virginia) and I think prevalent in his vocal is that very adventurous, cavalier and almost boyish spirit that suggests he’s ready for anything and wielding an especial appreciation for every moment you perhaps don’t get in the average person. The music tends to be undeniably RHYTHMIC, a la the snappy radio single “What Would You Say” and then of course there’s the unorthodox use of a saxophone solo which in frenzied gait and verbose delivery actually MIMICS a guitar, hence earmarking the band’s great overall technical skill and creativity of instrumentation.
Once you’re through Under the Table and Dreaming as an entire LP you’ve encountered melancholic pop (“Satellite”), Delta-funk (“Ants Marching”), narrative jam rock (“Jimi Thing”) and probably a tasty bit of prog with the excellent late-album cut “Warehouse,” to the point where very little is left to be desired, at least in terms of paradigmatic exploration within the style of radio rock. Crash, their followup album, by comparison, has always thinned out under my listens into unfocused note-playing under the precarious category of “funk,” and 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, though toting the mighty “Don’t Drink the Water,” opens up with a song that’s basically just terrible, again a stab at being “groovy” when there weren’t really any musical vision in tow to guide the thing.
And I’ll be da**ed if I haven’t been in this one-album DMB rut for nigh on a decade until recently I asked for help, sort of like an alcoholic would, on this Facebook post and got the recommendation for The Central Park Concert from this one dude (amidst an unfortunate bevy of ill-fated Before These Crowded Streets recommendations, which I duly ignored). This was promising, I thought. I’ve got these cheap Bluetooth speaker that’s working pretty well and Spotify premium on my $40 and da** I’ve been having way more fun on streaming platforms than is probably implicitly legal, especially seeing as the Swedish Spotify isn’t even a profitable company yet, per certain reports anyway. Now, of course, the Dave Matthews live album is hardly a rarity — they might even have more of them than studio albums, what with the one with Tim Reynolds as well as Live at Luther College, each of which came before Central Park (2003 in recording and release), then to be followed by The Gorge and many others. None of these efforts seemed very focused or tight to me and I’d always gravitated back toward those UTTAD recordings, finding them most clear and authoritative.
Right away a feather in the cap of Central Park, which also to its credit is just the recording of one concert (albeit two hours and 40 minutes long), was that it opened with the predatory beast that is “Don’t Drink the Water,” long one of my favorite songs. I saw that the song length of this mutha was 10 minutes, which I wasn’t complaining about, but three or four are spent in this ambient piano-only introduction, which really sets the mood rather nicely and sidesteps and awkward jolt into musical climax out of oblivion. Midway through the intro, the listener discovers that Matthews hadn’t even graced the stage prior, since all of a sudden you hear this uproar of 100,000 fans yelling at the top of their lungs (I doubt they were cheering for the hot dog guy).
“Don’t Drink the Water” opens up the album more than aptly but I really almost lost it when they sped into the intro for “So Much to Say,” easily the best song on the band’s second album Crash. Matthews shone on the rhythmic intro on this velvety sounding guitar which it looks like per Wikipedia is classified as “acoustic” (only the guest appearance of Gov’t Mule/ Allman Brothers’ Warren Haynes marks an official appearance of electric guitar on this entire show, interestingly enough). Also to the band’s credit is how they segue and bleed “So Much to Say” into its Crash-mate “Too Much,” which funky and furious takes about the same tempo as the former.
Fourth up is a track called “Granny,” which I’d never heard and couldn’t find on any of their studio albums but featured that same beautiful guitar tone and a celestial sort of energy that seems destined to inform this entire concert, which was an AOL benefit for music programs in New York City public schools. Other rarity “When the World Ends” found poignancy and meaning with equal credibility but the main impending highlight would be “Two Step,” originally a six-minute sort of jazz-foxtrot type monstrosity on Crash, a certain brave selection for radio single but born denizen of the live album. Here, its unorthodox rhythm and expansive structure are given room to breathe, in a jam-concert type of environment, seeing it balloon out into 11-minute size, each of which minutes manages to be fresh and trippy in its own way.
Of course “Jimi Thing” is always handy-dandy, likely the most often played DMB songs at concerts and live albums, but another shocker was the late cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” on which Matthews damns calm reflection and goes balls to the wall with an angry, relentless delivery that reminded me of a more conscientious version of Led Zeppelin covering the number.
What cannot be overstated, anyway, aside from the inclusion of ample classic, hummable tunes and the obviously inspirational spectacle of 100,000 people being in Central Park, is how good this album SOUNDS. Wikipedia credits no less than 64 “sound men” in its Personnel section for this album and I did not notice so much as a sonic hiccup the entire time — all the parts I wanted to hear were clear, well-mixed and never overly dominant. Of course, then, the best part to revel in is that, while DMB, with their jazzy disposition and sophisticated song themes, is a band conducive to a clean production, their frontman himself is anything but a choir boy — all over this album he’s effusively, boisterously expounding in this husky howl about how happy he is to be playing this show, and like I said he brings the house down on “All along the Watchtower” with some unruly vocal firepower that transcends all things theoretical, and more importantly, sounds every bit timely in the ascent of the war in Iraq.