Occasionally I’ll come across an album that instantly strikes an internal chord — one that speaks directly to me, often using smart, introspective lyrics. It’s the musical equivalent of love at first sight, and requires neither time nor thought for me to determine its significance. More often, however, as was the case with the Dave Matthews Band’s Live at Red Rocks, it takes time for me to be able to fully appreciate an album’s value, usually a gradual process that is approached song-by-song, and lyric-by-lyric.
Still, I’m always the last to catch on. In fact, I had little interest in listening to anything by the DMB until just a few years ago. Oddly enough, I live in Seattle, Washington, a town particularly fond of Matthews (who actually lives in the exclusive Magnolia neighborhood where much of his recent solo debut, Some Devil, was recorded.) Consequently, he is always being promoted locally in some form or another, whether it’s for his sold-out summer shows, various charity events or constant radio play. Despite it all, I still managed to give very little thought to his band or their music.
As it turned out, a college road trip was all it did finally take to get me listening. Stuck in the backseat of some midget car that was heading in the general direction of Canada, I remember hearing for the first time Live at Red Rocks. Even through poorly wired speakers, it was clear that this album was probably the closest thing I’d ever find to a portable live concert.
Musically speaking, it was a day that changed everything for me. I had never before been exposed to such intelligent and thought-provoking lyrics, seamlessly transitioning between infectious original guitar-violin-saxophone harmonies and inspired cover songs. For me, the first standout was “Dancing Nancies”, blending a powerful, uplifting melody with an interesting, image-filled theme. The head-bopping melody from “Best of What’s Around” became my second insta-hit, with the faster, string-bashing “Tripping Billies” coming in as a close third.
But it was the cover version of “All Along the Watchtower”, the Bob Dylan classic made famous by Jimi Hendrix, which would seal my fate as a life-long DMB fan.
Though it’s been over six years since Live at Red Rocks was released, it is still widely considered to be the crowning achievement of the Dave Matthew Band. Looking back, though, the decision to record and release their August 15th, 1995 show in Red Rocks, Colorado was an especially risky proposition at the time (even for a band more at ease on stage than anywhere else.) A recording studio guarantees perfect performances, while stepping outside that comfortable boundary and attempting to successfully record in front of a live audience requires both talent and luck; it’s a feat only a handful of bands have been able to pull of. At the time, an independent record label that could offer only scant opportunities for promotion and distribution backed the DMB. Consequently, not even the most memorable of performances would have been enough to guarantee the album’s success. But, it didn’t hurt to that long-time Matthew’s friend, collaborator and guitar wizard Tim Reynolds joined them.
As it turned out, the lack of commercial promotion did little to hinder sales of the album. It began receiving critical praise soon after its 1997 release; the general public took note, and, with home Internet access now commonplace, word-of-mouth recommendations began to spread like a brush fire. Against all expectations, the Dave Matthews Band’s first experiment with a live release started flying off of record store shelves, eventually outselling all four of their previous studio releases. As a result, it took only eight months for Live at Red Rocks to receive a gold certification from the RIAA.
From beginning to end, the brilliance of this album is in its ability to convey the band’s unfailing stage energy and infectious passion. Starting with the 13-miniute introductory track, “Seek Up”, the stage is set for the band’s trademark free-flowing style. Perhaps most impressive is their unique ability for creating a loose, improvisational show that still somehow manages to come off as being tight knit and focused. And therein lies the brilliance of this album: its ability to convey the unique feelings of actually being in the moment regardless of where you actually may be.
Ironically, it’s many of these same qualities that have made the Dave Matthews Band a constant source of frustration for a music industry hell-bent on categorizing artists. Matthews, however, refuses to be pigeonholed, and no matter how much global recognition the band receives, they will never stray from the grassroots foundation they started with back in 1991.
It’s because of their refusal to always play by major label rules that they are often referred to as a “jam band”, and grouped with like-minded acts like Phish and O.A.R. The label is commonly thought of in a negative connotation; or perhaps those who cater only to mainstream bands are the ones who look down up it. But it’s those fickle, TRL-driven artists that often end up with fleeting careers once their unevolving sound begins to stale. Fortunately, it’s doubtful that any of those acts would ever give up those cozy studio recording sessions for a chance a putting out a live release of their own.
Or so we can only hope.