From A Hard Core Fan
Over the past two days things have taken an ugly turn in the world of Dave Matthews Band and their fans. It began with Tuesday night's show in Rogers, AR. Two things about this show brought the feelings of the so-called "hardcores" of the fan base to a boiling point. One is a lack of diversity in the song selection of sets, particularly in the acoustic set. The other is the return of the Lovely Ladies.
Song selection has been an issue that has really become a hot topic over the past few years. What has brought this issue to the forefront is the fact that as the catalog of DMBs songs has grown most fans are expecting wider and more diverse setlists. What has actually happened is that setlists have grown more predictable and repetitive. A fine example of this was the last three weekends of the 2014 summer tour. On successive weekends (Berkeley, The Gorge, and the final show of the tour in Irvine, CA) the encore closer was Shake Me Like a Monkey. Is Shake Me Like a Monkey as bad a song as it has been made out to be? No, absolutely not. However, when it is overplayed to a fan base that is known for going to multiple shows every year, and then when that song closes out three of the biggest weekends of the tour (on three consecutive weekends mind you) it begins to get reviled by the fans.
When this band was in its younger years a hardcore fan was commonly asked why they would see the same band so many times. The common answer was always "Because every show is different, you never know what you're going to get." Alas, every show is still different, but that feeling that you never know what you're going to get is gone. The setlists have descended into what almost seems like a set rotation, even though that isn't quite accurate. The acoustic sets have been a particular area that has received a lot of criticism. Last year everyone was excited when they first heard about the acoustic sets. People were genuinely excited to hear songs played differently and get new life. The reality of what occurred over the summer did a great disservice to everyone. The songs that were played acoustically got repetitive because there weren't enough different songs attempted, and the ones that were played were played almost exactly the same as they would be played in the electric set. I expected different arrangements and stripped down versions of the songs, something that would be exciting. If one were given a recording of Tripping Billies from last year it was hard to discern which of the two sets it was from, there was very little difference between the acoustic version and the electric version. Sadly, the band had a real opportunity to do something exciting, and it was squandered to the point where fans were not excited to see the return of the acoustic set.
I think a lot of this has to do with either fear or laziness, or possibly both, I am not sure which. This is a band that used to take risks. Today you seem very risk averse. There used to musical pieces and interludes where the band would take the fan on a musical journey and we never know where we would end up. We just enjoyed going along for the ride, and the journey was magical. Think of things like Heartbeat, or Doobie Thing from the old days, or one of the multitude of times where it seemed the band was just jamming before or after a song and something special was happening on stage. Today things rarely exist and if they do they seem much more formulaic and rigid. That free flow of ideas between talented musicians either isn't there, or it is difficult to recognize today. You no longer see the band on stage trying things and taking risks. In the past sometimes those risks worked, and sometimes they didn't, but you always appreciated that they were trying. Even the jams during songs like Two Step and Jimi Thing feel like they are being played the same way over and over again. They used to be a lot less structured and the performances varied a lot. You needed to hear every performance of Two Step because you wanted to know which version was the best, now there is no need to hear every performance of the song because they don't vary all that greatly. What happened to the spontaneity and the musical adventure that used to happen much more frequently when you were at a Dave Matthews Band show?
There is a sense that some of the repetitiveness of songs has to do with lack of wanting to put in the work to revisit other material and make it sound good. Stefan condescendingly responded to a tweet by the Twitter account of this website yesterday by saying that he was "Off to run through our total catalog, you know, just in case, I like to be ready." What Stefan fails to grasp is - would it be nice if you could play any song at any time? Sure. That, however, we know is unrealistic. What is realistic though, with your large catalog, is that the band could easily dust off one or two songs a night – every night - that could inject some excitement into these shows. Might it take some practice and some work? Yes, it would, but last I checked Dave Matthews Band is a professional band, practicing the craft is part of the job. This is preferable to trotting out the same songs over and over and over again that the band could likely play in their sleep if they had to. (I'm looking at you Seven, among others.) I think the band challenging itself to play songs like The Dreaming Tree, The Last Stop, or Spoon three or four times a tour would be a worthwhile endeavor for everyone. It will make the band better, and it will please the fans. It will take effort to make that happen, and I am not sure that the band is willing to put in that effort. Stefan, be sure that we are not asking you for the world, indeed we are asking you to throw us a bone from time to time. Is that really too much to ask for?
Now to the second part of what brought everything to a boil the other night, the return of the Lovely Ladies. The Ladies have been quite polarizing. No one doubts that they are fantastic singers, they are indeed quite talented. The problem with the Ladies is that they don't particularly fit with the band other than in a few particular spots. They make sense on Stay, I like them on Long Black Veil, but on other songs such as You & Me and Drunken Soldier, they just get in the way. In both of these cases the Ladies parts become filler during musical parts of the song. Their parts get repetitive, don't go anywhere, and get boring. Incessant repeating of "You, me" and "That's not a star that's a satellite" is not adding anything to the songs, it is unnecessary and a big part of the reason why the Lovely Ladies are so reviled. Stefan can say all he wants that the people on his Twitter feed love the Lovely Ladies, but if the Lovely Ladies were so great for this band then why were they not advertised in promotional materials? We know when Bela Fleck is going to show up, we know when Emmylou Harris will be guesting. If the Lovely Ladies are not a problem for this band then why were they not advertised? The reality is that if they were advertised in advance they would have a negative impact on ticket sales, and that is bad news for a band that has had a growing problem selling tickets.
Shows no longer sell out like they used to. In fact, it is pretty easy to get tickets to a show these days. Tickets are regularly available for under face value on message boards, and can still be bought straight from the source up until the day of the show in most cases. This is a band that used to sell out multi-night runs in cities all over the country. Now places that are traditional strongholds for this band have been seeing less shows and decreased attendance. One of the earliest centers for this band was the northeast of the United States. This band regularly sold out Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, and Foxboro Stadium in Foxborough, MA. Multiple nights in giant stadiums packed to the gills in the northeast were the norm. To see what has become of the northeast for Dave Matthews Band is sad. Until recently Mansfield had two sold out shows; it's now down to a single show. Hartford used to sell out three shows; it is down to one show. Not to mention all the changes throughout New York. How did it come to this? How is it that the biggest stronghold of this band is now barely selling out single amphitheatre shows? This is what has happened by thumbing your nose at your hardcore fan base. The hardcores traveled, went to as many of these shows within their driving distance as they could, and made Dave Matthews Band a priority of their summer. The band has made it so that the hardcores no longer must see as much DMB as they possibly can. The band can continue thumbing their nose at the hardcore set of their fan base, but the numbers don't lie. The current state of DMBs live show fandom is what the result is.
Fortunately, I believe there isn't a lot that has to be done to reignite the enthusiasm within the hardcore fan base, and to get us buying tickets again for multiple shows, and traveling. The unfortunate thing is that the ways to fix this are not ways that the band is interested in taking. We get accused of "well if you don't like it don't go" and "why are you still a fan if you hate what they do?" The reality is that many people have either cut back their show attendance either dramatically or completely. The reality is also that many of these people are willing, and clamoring to come back, if they felt like they were getting even a semblance of what they expect out of this band. We are not asking for the band to do anything that you are incapable of. We are not demanding that you cure cancer and solve world peace and play Let You Down all in the same night. What we are demanding are things that we know this band is capable of because you have done it in the past. You set your own high bar with your past performances, it is a shame that you no longer strive to live up to that standard. This band is truly at a crossroads, you can continue down the path you're on, and with the current trajectory regular summer touring and amphitheatre style venues will certainly go by the wayside sooner rather than later, or you can alter course and see how your hardcore fans respond.
Make no mistake about it Dave Matthews Band and Stefan, we are not being cranky and negative because we want to be. We are trying to get you to re-realize your greatness. The unfortunate thing, and the thing that you really need to sit down and ask yourselves is, are you looking at things through the prism of reality, or are you looking at things through rose colored glasses? Retweeting people that say you can do nothing wrong, and they'd be happy no matter what you played is not helping your situation. Is it reasonable that there are other sections of the fan base that should be heard too? Of course, that is understandable. Should you ignore your hardcore fan base that has been dwindling of late, because of your lack of doing anything at all to appease them? Do so at your own risk. Ticket sales have floundered for a reason. There are fewer shows in hotbed areas for a reason. Do you care that your band is losing the popularity that is once had, and that is still within reach? Maybe you don't.
What happened to that guy that begged Dave to bring back Minarets only to have it spurned for Dream Girl? What happened to the guy that would poll the fans to ask what songs we wanted to hear, only to have most of it disregarded anyway? We know you deep down get it, Stefan. However, surrounding yourself with sycophants, only being interested in the messages that positive people message you, looking only as far as the pit so you only seeing the people in there who are having the time of their lives while you ignore that there are an awful lot of empty seats at the back of the pavilion, and that the lawn is a lot more sparse than it used to be is serving whom? All it is doing is shielding yourself from reality and telling you that everything is just fine while Rome burns around you. Are you willing to look at what's going on and do something about it, or are you going to continue to myopically avoid reality only to look back years from now and wonder why it all fell apart? Make no mistake, Dave Matthews Band is bringing this upon itself, there are ways to fix it and there is still time to change course. I bring these issues to your attention not because I am negative or because I dislike the band, on the contrary, I bring them to your attention because I love this band and want to see you have continued success and be on the level where you can be, and deserve to be.
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