How many effects pedals can Tim Reynolds fit onto a stage? How close can he get those sounds to those of an electronic synthesizer, violin, or cello? How important are the rest of those guys who methodically sprinkle their talents through each and every Dave Matthews Band record? And, my God. How many versions of “Two Step” can a listener take?
“How” seems to be a good word to describe the latest effort from a Dave Matthews without a band and a Tim Reynolds with a distinct desire to perform with easily his most important music friend. “Why” though, seems to be a more potent choice of words throughout the duo’s latest live offering, Live in Las Vegas, the third in which Matthews explores his softer side with a tricky acoustic guitarist who can’t help but at least try to upstage his counterpart with fast playing and quirky sounds. Sure, the question of “how” may be answered objectively, using numbers and quantities to come to an answer, but the truly impossible inquiry here really is “why.” Why do they keep putting these albums out?
1996’s Live at Luther College was a welcome change of pace. It introduced Dave-heads to the relatively unknown guitar virtuoso Tim Reynolds and allowed fans to see how funny and odd Matthews can be at his live shows extensively for the first time. It took over 10 years to decide to do it again with 2007’s Live at Radio City, an effort that displayed how much the novelty of the two performing together had worn off. Now, with Vegas, one has to wonder how they could possibly justify releasing yet another collection of performances of songs better heard with Matthews’s impeccable backing band.
So, why? Sure, the true believers will buy this set, mostly because it will fill in the holes of their Dave-obsessed collection, but why would any casual Matthews listener pop the 10 to 15 bucks to listen in on a show that offers nothing new to any of the songwriter’s songs? And with only two new tracks, both of which tend to slip into boredom easily without the color that explodes from most other DMB songs, why go through the process of putting out an entire album around this concert?
The key track on Vegas is clearly the duo’s take on Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir”. An attempt to spice the night up, Reynolds pulls out all his tricks while you can feel Matthews slobbering on himself as he watches the guitarist fill in the instrumental holes with quick runs and atmospheric sound effects. The performance, though, falls way short of memorable as a few minutes in, as you quickly realize that even with an above-average acoustic guitarist, it’s impossible for two people to capture the fun and the attitude of the original. Especially if one of those guys happens to be the dude who wrote “Crash Into Me”.
Other DMB staples are pedestrian at best. “Two Step” has become so predictable, it’s hard to think the track is anywhere near any die-hard fan’s top five. “Typical Situation” and “Bartender” both fall in line with the aforementioned “Two Step”, as well. When you consider that Matthews has an endless amount of depth to his catalogue, it’s become redundant to hear these songs on any Matthews live release. So that’s why some of the best performances come from songs off his band’s latest, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, or, as it should be well noted, songs that haven’t been heard live nearly as much. Though “Shake Me Like a Monkey”, “Funny the Way It Is”, and “Alligator Pie” all fall short of the incredibly high bar Matthews’s band has set on the original copies of these songs, each track is a welcome detour from the road of predictability that endlessly winds throughout most of Vegas.
Even better than the Whiskey tracks, though, are the songs that have grown into rarity status with DMB. “Grace Is Gone” will forever be a beautifully sad track, and the take on it here is a swift reminder of how good of a songwriter Matthews can be. “Some Devil” remains creepy, even when it’s preceded by a pretty uneventful version of “Crush”, and “Save Me” is an utter lost gem of a song that usually becomes forgotten considering its only home has been on Matthews’s only solo disc.
But not even the spots of greatness could justify releasing an entire two-disc set filled with watered-down acoustic takes on songs that normally benefit from a backing band that’s become one of the best in the pop music world. So why, Dave, why? Why put out these records that neither advance nor expand your otherwise sometimes-perfect little pop songs? Or, considering the plight of Vegas, maybe the following question is best: How long until you put out one of these with the rest of your band?