The last time I went to Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium, I broke in. One warm night a few months after I graduated from Blacksburg High School, an old friend and I climbed over the fence at the southern gate. We walked past row after abandoned row, made our way up to the nosebleed seats, and spent the better part of the evening talking about growing up, moving away, and the best ways to leave our lives behind. As I looked out over the campus that night, I felt sure that we’d always be close, but these days I rarely know which continent she’s on.
The transition from adolescent cocoon to real world is paved with little breaks just like that. For the children of Blacksburg, though, the hard knock to rule them all came in April, when right across the street from the stadium, a Virginia Tech student named Cho Seung-Hui shot up a dorm room, then a classroom, then an entire building. In metaphorical terms, and for all practical purposes, he got to the whole damn school. My hometown was consumed with grief and illuminated for weeks by hundreds of international media spotlights. The glare has since subsided, but I’m still sure that the space left behind will never be the same again.
It wasn’t until five months later, after a new freshman class was in place, that the university really had a chance to start over. To that end, Virginia musicians like Phil Vassar and the Dave Matthews Band decided to host a memorial concert at the beginning of the semester—not exactly a benefit show, but rather one where students, faculty, and recent graduates alike were admitted for free in the hopes that they’d unite to help one another get past the tragedy. True to form, when the lights went down and DMB took the stage, the crowd began screaming wildly. It was not the name of the band or some wild, unfocused yell, but the school’s football cheer.
The ominous jangle of “Two Step” opened the show, with drummer Carter Beauford taking the lead during a breakdown heavy on the kick drum. The rest of the band struggled to follow, but Beauford just grinned and popped another bubble with the gum he chews during sets to keep his internal metronome running.
Beauford’s mastery of precision timing defined newer songs like “The Idea Of You”—on which he guided Matthews up the neck of a minuscule 12-string with a time signature that became more and more convoluted as time went on—and old staples like “So Much To Say”, which turned into a stop-motion game where the band would freeze between chords for up to thirty seconds at a time. All through the night, he wore padded gloves to help him better throttle his sticks.
His syncopated mind games culminated during “#41”, when opener John Mayer turned up for his guest spot with staccato blues-guitar runs that answered each dotted sixteenth note in kind. In what I thought was bound to be the emotional climax of the evening, Mayer closed his solo by echoing the central sax riff, then stepped up to the mic and sang harmonies for each note, eyes wide and head shaking as if to convey his dismay at the circumstances that had brought him there.
I was wrong: DMB was about to up the ante.
The memorial constructed for the victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy is a set of 32 engraved stones arranged in a semicircle along the edge of the picturesque Drill Field that forms the center of the campus. Flowers abounded in the month between the dedication ceremony and the concert, but for one night the victims were awash in ticket stubs from listeners looking for closure. News reports in the weeks after its unveiling also described a silent war between the opposing factions who kept adding and removing an additional stone for the 33rd victim: Cho.
That stone was nowhere in sight when I visited, but I kept thinking that, even with it gone, there could have been another. The town had been a warm, reassuring place for me to grow up, but it surely isn’t for the kids living there now. I wanted a 34th stone for Blacksburg and the safe home it once was.
I had come to the show in order to reflect, and that called for DMB’s darker songs. Beauford’s 7/8 groove on “The Dreaming Tree” could have been part of the evening-long dirge I needed if paired with “Gravedigger”, “The Stone”, “Seek Up”, and one more elegy for each of the other 28 victims. I quietly hoped that they’d cap the night with “#34”, a serene instrumental from their breakthrough album which would be appropriate in much more than name alone.
None of the above; instead, they “Jimi Thing”-ed their way into a cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. One by one, the instruments dropped away until all that was left was the crowd singing along. The stage cameras turned around and looked out into the stands, and the screens filled up with the image of Virginia Tech singing to itself: “Every little thing is going to be alright.”
It should have ended there. Unfortunately, the band came charging back for the encore with a celebratory “Ants Marching”, trying to end the night with a bang when all that I really wanted was a moment of silence. Annoyed that I wasn’t getting it, I left my station up front and scaled the bleachers again. Up, up, and away I went, past the sections where I used to sell hot dogs for Boy Scout fundraisers, to watch from the seats at the top of the world where Natalie and I had emptied our heads six years before. Up there, the snare’s echo seemed to bloom from the farthest corners of the stadium, no less than half a second after each strike, blemishing my view with a distorted perception of the one thing Blacksburg and I still needed most from one another: time. Beauford keeps it by biting gum with all his might on every beat, but the rest of us can only try to cherry-pick a memory as we watch it slip away.