Dave Matthews, particularly with the Dave Matthews Band, isn’t recognized enough for his songcraft. It gets lost under the weight of popular perception about Dave’s music, live shows and achievements: touring jam band, incredible musicianship, big sound, long shows, lots of dope smoked at every show, generally appealing to those who once followed the Grateful Dead (how those two were connected I’ve never understood). Dave’s songs also get lost a little because people say they don’t understand what his lyrics are about, and perhaps because the songs have a certain tentative complexity of rhythm and melody – a quality that makes them sound experimental but that’s actually very planned, calculated and predictable.
I’m a dedicated listener to DMB, regardless of whether it’s their studio or live records. I also tend to order all of their Live Trax releases, which are only available from the Dave Matthews Band website. And while I appreciate the bigness and crispness of the band’s sound (Stefan Lessard’s phenomenally powerful and groovy bass, Carter Beauford’s tight and tireless drums, LeRoi Moore’s muscular saxophone, Boyd Tinsley’s sweet violin and Dave’s acoustic folk guitar that somehow glues it all together), I also love Dave’s songs in their lyrical craziness and melodic, fearless musical invention (he sounds like so many singer/songwriters we know, yet completely unique, all at the same time). Dave’s songs are love songs, sad songs, happy songs, crazy party songs; songs about women, history, life, being on the road and alternate life outcomes. It’s a canon of work as varied, strange, richly developed and textured as many other great songwriters’ – Springsteen, Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor.
Live at Radio City, like the earlier Live at Luther College, is that rare Dave Matthews live record that leaves all the musical pyrotechnics at home and foregrounds just the songs. Tim Reynolds, Dave’s long-standing acoustic live cohort, is certainly an excellent guitar player and shines in the acoustic solos here (and, of course, Dave himself is also an under-recognized master of the acoustic guitar, providing pulsing, driving rhythms). But this is about the songs, proving that they can hang together beautifully without 15-minute jams, create their own strange poetry and be compelling, even if you don’t really always know what they’re about.
Favourites for me are “Gravedigger” with its embedded nursery rhyme, a beautiful cover version of Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker” (which is of course also incredible in full DMB live regalia), and “Crush,” to name but a few of many. Over the years, Dave’s voice has begun to sound more and more like Peter Gabriel’s in tone and timbre – it has a dark and quiet but clear command of the musical space set up by the song. It’s an expressive and instantly recognizable voice (like Sting’s or Phil Collins’) that doesn’t really fit into any specific genre. Much like Dave Matthews himself doesn’t fit into any genre, I suppose. Maybe he creates his own.
I can’t really recommend this ‘acoustic’ set strongly enough. It’s best heard together with Live at Luther College because it provides a continuation of sorts – old songs versus new songs, old sound versus new. I could sometimes do without the talking between songs (strangely, Dave – writer and singer of such deeply intelligent songs – doesn’t sound either witty or particularly bright in his ‘announcements’…) but that’s a very minor drawback.