Remembering Star Lake 1998
By Jon Poli
April 10, 2012
When I look back on my life 20-30 years from now, June 3, 1998 will stick out from the many dates and many June 3's that have passed. Sure, it won't be as visible as a wedding day (if that ever happens) or graduating from law school, but it will be a memory full of joy and color.
Go a little further back, mid to late 1997; I was a sophomore in high school. Many of my friends would speak of the Dave Matthews Band. Friends who played the drums raved rhapsodically about Carter Beauford. I can trace the beginning of my love of the band to an acquaintance named Chad. He was home-schooled until his sophomore year, when he suddenly appeared at my high school. We shared an 8th period music theory and theater production class (the subjects alternated days). During free moments we would talk about music that we liked. I was deep into classic rock. The Beatles, Hendrix, Clapton, The Who and so forth. Besides them, and obvious modern bands such as Pearl Jam, Chad would go on and on about two bands: Ben Folds Five and DMB. These talks, and the rave reviews of my friends convinced me to explore DMB a bit more. The first song I remember hearing was Ants Marching, and I was immediately intrigued by the combination of the violin and saxophone. In the afternoons after school I would watch the Top 10 video countdown on VH1 (remember when that station played music?). Crash Into Me was in heavy rotation and I was entranced by the song and video.
Christmas 1997. Under the tree was my first DMB album . . . Live at Red Rocks of all things. I wanted to hear All Along the Watchtower. But as I explored the rest of that album, I began to realize this band was special. They spoke to me the same way as the classic rock acts I so loved. So I went out and acquired Crash (but not UTTAD for some odd reason).
Forward to late April 1998. Coming home from a rehearsal for my school's spring musical, I heard a commercial on the radio for DMB tickets for the concert on June 3. I realized I needed to go that show, needed to experience . . . I didn't even know what at the time. This was before the days you could do everything online, so my one friend volunteered to go to a Ticketmaster outlet and buy tickets. I gave him $30 for a lawn ticket ($30 including fees! Unheard of these days!) and I'm glad I did. The show sold out in four hours. I felt I had a golden ticket in my hands. Later that month, of course, Before These Crowded Streets came out and melted my face. I didn't even know the online community such as DMBML or The Bridge or whatever it was back then existed, so I was not privy to the negative feedback that album received. I just knew I loved it. My friends at school seemed to love it as well.
Finally, the day arrived. June 3, 1998. I had day one of a two-day American History final at school and whatever else to do at class. Then a group of us, Chad, me and several others met at my friend Meghan's to go to the show. We piled into Meghan's van. As there were not quite enough seats and I was small, I crammed myself on the floor between the middle row of seats and the door. We listened to BTCS and, for some reason, Ben Folds Five on the way there.
We pulled into Star Lake's parking lot, and it was pouring down rain. (If I recall correctly, there was a rare tornado in the area earlier in the week). We huddled on the gravel behind Meghan's van as her dad grilled up some hot dogs. I began to take in my surroundings, the sea of cars, the other tailgates, the people. There were a few more hippie-ish folk back then. After eating, we entered the venue. First stop: the t-shirt booth. I bought the blue BTCS shirt with the pictures of the five on the front and the drink-rings on the back.
Once we spent too much money on t-shirts, we made our way to the lawn. Thankfully, the heavy rain had stopped and a cool yet lovely evening was taking shape. We set a blanket down near the front and center section, chatting and waiting. Another group of kids from my high school happened to find us, making the night that much merrier. I felt anticipation, but for what I was not quite sure. I really had no idea what to expect. If I did expect something, I certainly did not expect to have anything resembling what some might call a religious out-of-body experience.
As I sat admiring the clearing sky, a cheer rumbled its way from the front of the crowd on back through the lawn. Mr. Matthews himself had taken the stage to introduce the opener. He said something like "Thank y'all for coming out on this cloudy, crappy day" and went on to introduce a group called Poi Dog Pondering. They were a funky, gospel-y group that had backup break-dancers (who would show up later in the evening during Stay). They were fun, but I wasn't exactly overwhelmed by them. Back to chatting and waiting. The sun fell lower in the sky. The crew cleaned the stage. The crowd began to fill in even more. My excitement grew. A few false start cheers sprang up here and there as the crowd up front cheered for crewmembers, thinking they might be band members.
Finally, after months of exploring this band's music, after weeks of anticipation, hours of waiting in the clearing rain, it was time for DMB to walk onto the stage of the Star Lake Amphitheater and leave an indelible impression on my life. A real cheer erupted from all over, and the crowd stood up in unison as the boys took the stage. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
"Ba doom doom CHA!" and a flash of light. Don't Drink the Water got things going. Honestly, this was not my favorite off of BTCS, so I was pleased they were getting the new single done first. Still, I thought, "This is cool. There they are, up there playing and sounding quite nice." As it was a somewhat chilly evening, Dave came out wearing a winter hat, which would soon be removed.
Then it happened. "Buh BUH!" Tripping Billies. Something inside me clicked. Some chemical released in my brain telling me I was in awe of and in love with what I was seeing and hearing. This is the moment I fell head-over-heels for this band. The rest of the show would be pure bliss and magic. During the middle of the song, where Carter goes insane, Dave says "Cause we're tripping billies," Boyd plays away, and then Carter hits the double-bass, my jaw hits the lawn and I never pick it back up. I have always been a little shy, and I was even more so back then, but I was moved to dancing, not caring whether I was looking like an idiot. My friends were doing the same, so what did I care? Also, at the end of Billies, I decided that for some reason I really wanted to hear Two Step.
The band continued, rocking us with an early version of the Heartbeat Jam into PNP-Rapnuzel. More dancing. More awesomeness. More joy. Next Dave oinked at us as they went into Pig. Then there was the one-two punch of The Stone (yay!) into Drive In Drive Out. Each moment I loved this show, this band, this experience more and more. As the initial euphoria toned itself down a notch, I began to take in my surroundings. The sights, the smells, the smoke. I turned my head and was taken back by the absolute mass of humanity that surrounded me. I looked directly in front of me, and, I'll never forget this, there was this lone stoned hippie, by himself on a blanket, wearing a floppy hat. When a song ended, he stood stock-still. When the music began again, he danced as if in his own little world, arms and legs gyrating in all directions. I took in Fenton's light show, amazed at the rig above the stage and the lights crisscrossing the band and crowd. Giant LCD screens weren't in play yet, so I remember these greenish-purplish twinkling lights lighting up the stage behind the boys. Above all I remember actually seeing the band themselves: Dave doing his jelly-legs dance as he attacked the guitar, Boyd sawing away, eating up the stage, Carter's arms flailing, Stefan bouncing as he played, and Roi. Roi stood still on stage left in his shades, yet golden sound flowed from his sax, and I loved every note he played.
Some newer fans are still searching for their first Last Stop and/or Dreaming Tree. I got them back-to-back during the middle my first show. Dave started strumming the opening notes, building up an intro like on Live Trax 1, before the band exploded into Last Stop. The only trouble with this performance of this song was that Roi did not yet play on the outro, only Boyd. At the time, though, I did not care. As for Dreaming Tree, download it! Now! They did not play it a ton in 1998, and this is a gem of a performance. The verses and chorus sounded fantastic. But on the outro Roi played this haunting, powerful solo on the soprano sax, trading licks with Carter. Carter brought the song into a landing, playing this pattern on the high hat then switching to the cowbell (more cowbell!).
After being pummeled by this splendidness it was time for some fun with SMTS-ASTB-Too Much. Simply fun. Then, as if my mind could not be more blown, the band brought on the caterer, Mitch Rutman, for Crush. Simply awesome. Dave then brought on Poi Dog Pondering to guest on Stay. They added the Lovely Ladies parts as well as some break-dancing. It made the song more interesting if nothing else. Older fans of the band may have complained at this point that there was not enough older material being played. These same fans would have been somewhat satiated by Dancing Nancies played to perfection. "Could I have been lost somewhere in Pittsburgh?" elicited a healthy cheer. And the moving image of Dave and Boyd dueling during Boyd's solo will always be etched in my memory.
At this point, I realized that there could not be much show left, and I still desired to hear Two Step. As Nancies came to an end, I was worried that I may not hear it. Then it happened. Boyd and Dave started strumming the unmistakable intro. My heart leapt out of my chest. I almost lost control of my faculties as I clapped along with the rest of the crowd, just as I remembered hearing on the Red Rocks album. For that one moment I may have been the happiest kid in the entire universe. The performance was perfect. I was in heaven.
Two Step, of course, closed the set, and I tried to gather my thoughts during the encore break. I had just seen greatness. I had just felt a joy so pure. Not knowing any better I became one of those blithering idiots that shouts "Watchtower!!!"
The band returned to the stage to raucous applause. They graced us with Granny, the first time I had ever heard that song. My friends and I all locked arms and sang along to "Love! Baby!" I again shouted "Watchtower!!!" in hopes the band would actually hear my cry (I was a dumb noob back then). But the band would close this incredible evening with . . . Rhyme and Reason. (Huh?) To this day, it was the strangest closer I have ever seen. While it was a fine performance of a fine song, we all thought they would play one more. However, that was it. No matter.
This night, this show would cement my love for this band, a love that I still feel today. Maybe it was partly because it was the start of summer, the weather was nice, the school year was ending, and I was about to start summer theater camp, but after that show I felt a natural high, a euphoria that would last for weeks. Only a bout of the flu would bring me down from it. I fell in love on June 3, 1998. With a band. With an experience. With a tradition that now spans almost half of my years on this Earth.
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