Dave Matthews Band | Alpine Valley '24

The two-night stand that lasted eight days

Mon Jul 01 2024

Since you stopped by, allow me to bitch for a moment about Summerfest again. This whole three-weekend deal. I’ve slowly come to accept that it’s probably better in most ways for most people involved (this is not a critique, remember, just me bitching). For me personally, though, it means three weekends out of a precious Milwaukee summer I have to work. With this comes immense gratitude to even have that opportunity, don’t get me wrong! All things considered, there aren’t many places I’d rather be than Summerfest. It has definitely hampered my ability to see the Dave Matthews Band though. In the past 15 years they’ve only done one Alpine Valley run that WASN’T during Summerfest. And Alpine is just…THE place to see them.

At this point, Milwaukeeans who used to go to Summerfest in the ‘90s are like ‘good! keep those gosh darn Dave Matthews fans away from Summerfest!’ and if it WERE the ‘90s I’d be inclined to agree. If you saw Dave at the Marcus Amphitheater in the ‘90s I can almost promise someone spilled a beer on you, with pretty good odds he wasn’t wearing a shirt. In fact I bet DMB fans soured half of my generation (locally!) on this festival. But DMB fans are older now, and without question dwindling somewhat; the feeling isn’t the same, and for some of us, that’s a GOOD thing.

It worked out for everyone, because if Milwaukeeans can’t be bothered to scrounge up a free ticket (they’re everywhere) and hop on a bike or a bus or one of those e-scooters and see free live music because…checks notes…ah yes, “Summerfest sucks”, maybe we have Dave to thank for it not being so crowded down there any more. Meanwhile, the world at large has seemingly gotten over its hatred of Dave; popular music has moved on from him, and his fanbase is no longer the drunken college mob. His shows are a total blast nowadays.

Still, I usually leave them feeling a little let down. There are a lot of reasons, but the main one is that he rarely plays my favorite songs when I’m in attendance any more. It’s different with Phish; they could play all of their absolute worst songs and as long as the jams are good I hardly care. Dave has never in his life written a song remotely as bad as Phish’s worst songs (okay except maybe “Mother Father”, egads), but he doesn’t jam the way Phish does; only certain songs are allowed to change at all night to night, and these all have their particular strategies and modes. Nothing is open-ended. There’s not much DMB does that surprises me any more; that makes the setlist all the more important.

The problem is, even though he’s not a huge commercial force any more, Dave has so many bona fide hits from the early days that he absolutely has to play every other night. And that means most of the songs I’d like to hear become rarer and rarer as he keeps pumping out new ones. On the plus side, the new ones are rarely terrible and pretty frequently good, and the singer of those tunes can sometimes shock you with his vocal prowess. He’s always gone for the gusto, as it were, but back in the day he sounded comparatively silly in quieter moments, completely lacking in control, and his timbre itself turned me off entirely until I was dragged to a show. Even listening to shows from 20 years ago he sounds amateurish compared to the way he sings today.

Still, I’ve been getting stuck in a rut with a lot of the same ol’ tunes for many years, and it’s because I’ve only been going to one show at a time. He doesn’t do two-nighters in Milwaukee and I just haven’t made space for two consecutive nights of Dave in over two decades. I did lose interest for quite a stretch there, like I think a lot of fans did, especially Phishheads—there’s less crossover between the two fanbases than you might think. For a long time, going to Dave shows has been only for the hangs; it hasn’t really been about the music.

It’s starting to be about the music again. The last two Summerfest shows (2021 and ’23 (https://www.jsonline.com/story/entertainment/festivals/summerfest/2023/06/30/dave-matthews-band-keeps-fans-guessing-at-milwaukees-summerfest/70356650007/)) weren’t mind-blowing or anything but they featured what I’d call ‘signs of life’ on the creativity front, as well as what I can only refer to as ‘energy’. It may be a simple case of projection on my part, but for quite a long time they’d seemed a little lost. It’s not as if I could blame them; between founding saxophonist LeRoi Moore’s sudden death in 2008 and disturbing allegations against longtime violinist Boyd Tinsley resulting in his departure in 2018, DMB has seen more than its share of dysfunction this century. Though they may not be a ‘jamband’ in the strictest terms, any improvisational ensemble needs years to truly gel.

Night one at Alpine was the most gelled DMB I’ve witnessed in a long time. I’m sure every tour has its ups and downs and I may have just caught sporadic off nights over the years, or maybe this band is actually getting to a better place; I haven’t seen or listened to enough shows to know for sure. I used to listen to DMB shows quite a bit in the ‘90s but there’s not really enough variety for that to keep being interesting once you’ve graduated to more experimental bands. So Dave’s just an in-person experience for me nowadays; it’s better this way.

A few weeks ago, Roger Daltrey popped off about a tangential topic on CNN: “‘The Internet’s ruined the live shows for me,’ he said. ‘Who wants to know what’s coming next? People forget about surprises.’” My initial reaction was to scoff, as I generally do whenever he or Pete Townshend says anything these days. If you didn’t play the exact same shit the exact same way every night, Roger, you COULD still surprise people, despite the insidious internet. However, I have to give him some concession now, because I realize it’s a matter of how deep you want to go.

For instance, if I’d been keeping up with setlists or been active in the online fan community, I’d have known that lately DMB had been playing “Pantala Naga Pampa” WITHOUT “Rapunzel”, and it wouldn’t have been such a fun surprise to have it precede “Best Of What’s Around” instead. (“Rapunzel” came later for the full-circle moment.) I didn’t know that “Recently” had become fairly regular in the rotation. I didn’t realize how much the band’s approach to songs like “Cornbread” and “Louisiana Bayou” had changed over the years. And I didn’t know that when they end the show with “The Last Stop”, it gets expanded into what you could almost call a legitimate jam; there are so few instances of this that I savored every second of this. It’s what made the show for me, in addition to the fact that they just didn’t play any of the songs I’ve grown sick to death of. And when you only get to hit one show, it feels like dodging a bullet; surely he’ll play all of THOSE songs tomorrow.

Only tomorrow never came; the Saturday show was evacuated due to thunderstorms and tornado activity in the area, and when they announced the makeup date, zounds! it was makeable! I’ve been plagued by show cancellations this year; I realize it’s just the new normal, but it makes a surprise bonus show all the less missable. Besides, Dave may have eschewed all my least-faves at the Friday show but he also didn’t play any of my faves.

He played all of THOSE at Deer Creek this past weekend, NATURALLY. Well, it wouldn’t have been fair to the Hoosiers to ‘save’ all the good songs for the special Alpine makeup date I suppose. However, Dave isn’t beholden to jamband rules like never playing the same song on back-to-back nights, and it’s not as though many fans were likely to make a special trip to East Troy for a single Sunday show anyway. I might still get lucky.

Nights like this you often get primed for a letdown. We expect our heroes to be heroic when disaster arises; then I think of Northerly Island 2013 (http://www.you-phoria.com/Blog/2013/July/phishfork), when Phish responded to a rain-out with a generous three-set show the following night…and no jams whatsoever. It was a historic letdown, musically, but only because Phish had historically responded better to adversity, whereas I don’t know if Dave tends to bat an eye at circumstances beyond his control.

Yet certainly the “Hello Again” opener seemed an obvious wink, night two of a two-night stand, eight days late. Then came “JTR” with its chorus of “Rain down on me”, a beloved rarity that was retired for most of the teens and now gets played a handful of times a year. The gag didn’t stop there; next was “Fool In The Rain”, and to really drive the point home, one of Dave’s best compositions of the past ten years or so, “Virginia In The Rain”. I’d expected a sparse crowd but the place was pretty packed, and given the logistics of a late Sunday night in the middle of nowhere, it was mostly diehards here. My impression is that Dave doesn’t often do ‘theme’ shows, and the fans were loving this.

After this stretch came possibly the highlight of the show for me: “Spoon”, the only song off BEFORE THESE CROWDED STREETS I’d never seen live. Even though they’d just played it last night! I thought there was little chance of this but it’s another former rarity that they’re suddenly playing the shit out of and god bless ‘em. We were over an hour into the set before they even played a hit—“The Space Between”, which I hadn’t heard in so long it barely hit like a hit, especially after Dave aborted it after a couple lines and switched to acoustic guitar. Then it felt like a completely different song.

That had come on the heels of the epic “American Baby Intro”, which still makes me giggle, the fact that they have this quasi-instrumental post-rock piece that was ostensibly a lead-in to a godawful single they never play any more but the ‘intro’ lives on. Why wouldn’t they just call it “#53” or something? Regardless, it’s always a major pick-me-up at a show, as was “Let’s Dance”, one of Dave’s covers-of-the-moment. He played two more of these as well: Billy Preston’s “Will It Go ‘Round In Circles” and Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe”, which began the encore. That’s a song I’d seen performed at Alpine Valley once before—at the PJ20 Festival in 2011 (http://www.you-phoria.com/Blog/2011/September/PJ20). It’s a song that gave me hope when I first heard it, that Eddie Vedder hadn’t lost his touch, that he could still write a great ballad, a great lyric.

My Pearl Jam fandom has waned and waxed to both extremes over the years, much moreso than my Dave fandom, but I still recall Dave catching hell from some corners in the ‘90s for sounding like a Vedder impersonator, the whole ‘yarling’ topic that you can google if you feel like it. So I really have to salute the man for putting a PJ song into his repertoire; it’s not like Dave is going to ‘make it his own’ or whatever, he’s just illustrating what a beautiful song it is even if you put it in the context of one of HIS concerts. It was way too emotional to even sing along to. I’m very grateful for that moment.

There was also the cover of “All Along The Watchtower”, which absolutely anybody could’ve predicted. But again, although I’d seen Dave play this song a few times before, he’d never taken the jam into a full-on interpolation of the “Stairway To Heaven” finale! Would it have been less of a thrill if I’d seen it coming? Well, Roger, maybe so, fine! We’ll never know for sure, will we? It was cool as hell. And this came after the “Warehouse” jam that I’m sure people have noticed tends to sound a lot like the “Fool In The Rain” breakdown although I suppose it’s not technically a tease. The intro music on the PA before the show had been all Zeppelin; I guess the sound crew forced ‘em into all this. Bravo, sound crew!

After that “Just Breathe” encore they had one more surprise for us. They’ve had a lot of different strategies over the years for playing the beginning of “Ants Marching”, probably their signature tune and definitely the one I’ve seen ‘em play more than any other. There was a time when hearing the song would absolutely ruin my night; I think I’m over that. All the same, when Carter Beauford finally hit that solitary snare snap I mentally slumped my shoulders; OH WELL. I wasn’t giving Dave enough credit though; he knew we were not an Ants Marching crowd, and three minutes into the fucking song they suddenly transformed as a full band right out of that song and into “Halloween”! I sure as hell didn’t know THAT was a thing.

It’s a thing, though. And it doesn’t feel any less special now that I know it’s a thing. It’s like They Might Be Giants playing a song backwards (http://www.you-phoria.com/Blog/2024/June/they-might-be-giants-or-barrymore-theatre-or-6-23); I don’t care how many times they milk that gimmick, it’s fucking amazing! I love that Dave has the gumption to completely fuck with his fans like that. Were there people there who were totally bummed? I hope not, but they could all go to their cars and put on any version of “Ants Marching” their hearts desired. Chances are they’ll get one next time. Me, I STILL never need to hear that song again.

So, thanks Dave. Across the two nights at Alpine, you kept it fresh and kept me guessing pretty much the whole time. I can only think of a few times in the past you’ve impressed me and moved me this much, and those were all many years ago. I was here for your first Alpine show and I hope to be here for your last and I really hope Sunday wasn’t it. You still didn’t play the stuff I most wanted to hear, BUT no “Jimi Thing”? No “Crash”? No “#41”? No “Crush”? No “What Would You Say”? AND no “Ants”? (And no “Shake Me Like A Monkey” FTLOG!) To be clear, I don’t HATE these songs! I’ve just heard them so many damn times, I’ll take whatever random wacky covers you please instead. Now I’m going to retreat from the Dave sphere again until next summer I reckon. I’ll do my best not to spoil any further surprises you might have in store.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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