The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Defending Dave

If you play a song for fifteen minutes, does that make you a "Jam Band?" Absolutely not. Jam Bands share a few distinctive traits. They tend to have a strong Jazz influence, which manifests in the structures of Jam Band tunes. They stick to major keys (generally) shunning the depressing minor spectrum, and they feature their instruments as well as their singers.

Jam Band songs generally follow a pattern in which a dominant melody is established either by the singer or the lead guitar player, followed by extended riffing on that theme, and variation on that theme, by the rest of the band members. It is this structure that leads to all of the incessant noodling around that bothers pop music fans when they attempt to listen to Jam Bands. To the untrained ear, it just sounds like they're wasting time, and occasionally this is true.

The Dave Matthews Band superficially appears to follow this pattern. They feature frequent violin and saxophone solos based on the established song pattern. The thing is, most Dave Matthews Band songs are too structured to make for good jazz. Tunes like Ants Marching, Tripping Billies, Stay, are for the most part, standard pop songs with an occasional instrument solo.

Dave does have a few jammier songs, The Proudest Monkey springs immediately to mind, but no one goes to see Dave to hear The Proudest Monkey. By and large, people go to see Dave to hear pop music with some jam on the side. This accounts for the "annoying crowds" that some Phish fans complain about.

But let's not focus on the bad jamming. The fact is that the DMB excels (or used to excel) at writing tight pop songs.

Ah, but you say that I've not defended Dave from his accusers, I've merely shifted the focus off of the hippies. This is true, but even the most hard-core Phish-head should praise the existence of the DMB, because by pretending to be a Jam Band, Dave has subsidized the continuation and creation of many other legitimate Jam Bands. Take a look at this post from our Phavorite Phish-lovin' blogger Ace Cowboy:

I guess DMB was the headliner of the six-band sun-soaked fiesta, but we left shortly before he serenaded the popped-collared and oversized-sunglassed masses with his own brand of unintelligibility and inferior musicianship.

Say what you will about the man, but Dave puts on a fantastic undercard. We got to see Ace favorites Tea Leaf Green and Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, as well as Yonder Mountain String Band, Slightly Stoopid (which was Slightly Terrible) and the first half of Government Mule.


Here are some facts:

1. Dave is consistently one of the top grossing concert acts out there, and has been for years.

2. Dave almost always has legit jam bands playing with him.

3. While some Jam Bands, like Phish, don't (or didn't, anyway) need any help making a living, some promise of fame and fortune does inspire new bands, and keeps those bands with potential in the game.

4. Dave is, at least partially, a Jam Band subsidy machine.

Dave helps out other Jam Bands. He's the cool guy who gets you into clubs. Sure you've got personality, but no one will ever find out if Dave doesn't get you in front of those people. And you may not even like Dave's people, but their cash is as good as anyone's, and you can use that cash to help promote yourself to your people.

But just helping out impoverished Jam Bands doesn't exonerate Dave from charges of suckiness. Dave also has to play good music, and on that front, it's tough to argue that he fails. Hits notwithstanding, Dave has made some thoroughly enjoyable pop, especially if you're cruising around in the summer. It has not always been groundbreaking, that much is true, but so what? Most music isn't groundbreaking. Dave is less like Phish and more like U2. (Note: Not nearly as good, just in the same category). Ants Marching, What Would You Say, Crush, and Crash, all would sound fine on a radio station playing Achtung Baby and Out Of Time.

Most Dave songs are perfectly pleasant anthems to doing nothing. They're...nice. If you're looking to see a show where you can sing a little and dance a little, you could do worse than Dave, and that's why people keep coming back. For all of Dave's jammy-style noodling, he's actually pretty consistent (worst concert ever notwithstanding). Some people have no patience for Jazz and Jam Bands because of its instability. Dave gives them exactly what they expect most of the time, and in a genre where everything is in flux, it's nice to look at the concert bill and think to yourself,

"Hey, at least we know that Dave will be OK."

5 Comments:

  • I'll respond because I said I would and because you're calling me out...but let me make this clear -- I don't hate Dave, I just don't care about him. He's not really on my radar, and when he is, I'll make fun of him because I can, because it gets people riled up. Same with Phish and me.

    And I don't think you made many points that I'd throw a challenge flag on. I think, like you even alluded to, you just shifted the focus to points that are tough to argue and wholly tangential to said nonexistent argument.

    I don't like his crowd, but that's not why I don't like him. It's part, but it's not "it." I don't like the fact that he broke up Phish, which he really didn't, but he might have (trying to make Trey think he's a rockstar instead of a lead bandmate!). That's just part of it all. And I don't care that he grosses a lot, or that he's a jamband subsidy, or that he inspires new jambands (which, actually, I would DEFINITELY disagree with)...that all doesn't matter to me.

    What matters is that his jams are meandering garbage that end up leaving you with blue balls -- no, they don't even get you hard.

    In truth, I don't even mind the pop stuff. I don't love it, but at least it is what it is. The jam stuff, on the other hand, is flat-out boring. His jams are lackluster and uninteresting to a degree that even mediocre jambands would laugh at. Dave's got a really talented band individually, but I haven't really heard them reach a single peak in a jam that made me say, "Wow, I cannot believe they just took me there."

    And maybe that's part of what *I* look for in a band, and it's unfair of me to project that onto Dave. But if you're gonna be a jamband -- and I'm not sure they really even want to be -- you can't just play 20-minute songs and expect to move people. You need to take the crowd to places they didn't think was possible. And they have NEVER really done that. They noodle and they build up jams, but they don't get me to that point, that "my head might explode if Dave holds this note for another two seconds" point.

    To use the parlance of today's faux hippies, I need my face melted. The reason people love Phish (aside from the heady heady drugs, brahhh) is because their killer jams mostly get stripped down to nothing and then patiently rebuilt together as a musical unit to this point where the roof may come flying off at any moment. It's tough to describe, obviously, but it's been missing from ever Dave song I've heard.

    DMB is a good band, and they have a great following (volume-wise). I wish him all the success in the world, as I do for the Clay Aikens and LeAnn Rimes of the world. They have more talent than me obviously, and they're good at what they do. But for DMB to even be considered a jamband just because they play long songs, well, that's an insult to everything I've enjoyed over the last 12-15 years.

    I hope I don't come off as too big an arrogant snob, because that's really not the case. I just think if you listen to the Bathtub Gin or YEM from 12/2/99 or the Bomb Factory Tweezer from '94 or the 2001 from Hampton 97 and then listen to anything Dave's ever played, you'll agree with everything I just tried to say (but couldn't quite say coherently). And that's funny, because as much as I like to consider myself a writer, I can never express my thoughts about Phish's music clearly. And that says something to me as well...that I can't even fathom it outside of the moment.

    By Blogger Ace Cowboy, at 12:58 PM  

  • I think your comment actually agrees with me quite a bit. Here's how I look at it in a nutshell. I'm not a big Phish guy partially I think because I'm impatient. When stuff gets into my head, it's 30 seconds long. It's not that I have a small attention span, I love long books and classical music, it's just that I like to get to the point. BUT, I do recognize that they're very good at what they do, even though it's not my thing, and that it is a type of art. In their style, they're the Mozart. When I listen to DMB, I don't even think of them as being in the same neighborhood. They're the guys who give me my 30 seconds. Phish is going bigger. Frankly, I can see how the payoff with Phish, the mind-meltiness, if you will, hits you. If I hung around for a bit I'd probably even go for it.

    Mainly, I think it's weird that Dave enters the Phish conversation. To me, it's like Master P ripping on Franky Yankovic, the Polka King. Except that by some accident of history the two of them play similar venues to similaw fans at similar festivals, perhaps after Master P's sampling of Franky's hit "Who Stole the Keska." I probably spelled that wrong. It's a sausage. I think.

    Dave's not great for sure. Certainly not the sum of their parts. And while that post did start out as directed at you (and Ahren) you both did well by yourselves to not hate on Dave. It was still worth writing, as both Danny and I do attend shows in mixed company and we both see way too much Dave-hating (and, to be fair, Dave fan-boyism), and we think that JamBand fans are always way to harsh. If I or my brother is/are there, it's a safe bet that the crowd in general is there to see Dave and not Umphreys (who played a good Lolla show btw).

    Credit where its due is all I'm sayin. His jams are crap. BORRRing. his new stuff, also crap. But hey, he did some good there for a while, and overall, I think hes still a force for good. Big picture. Think I first gained that perspective in a Lloyd Alexander book. Maybe even The Dark Cauldron.

    Wow, that got away from me.

    So yes, you made sense. and I basically agree with you.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 2:10 PM  

  • It's the "Black" Cauldron.

    By Blogger DannyNoonan, at 3:10 PM  

  • You hit the nail on the head, though, Paul. The Pheesh from Vermont is all about patience, and being rewarded for that patience.

    By Blogger Ace Cowboy, at 3:20 PM  

  • Excellent chance you guys are thinking about this issue too much.

    By Anonymous Keith, at 8:31 AM  

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