A few weeks ago, I had an amazing musical experience. As someone who studies music and music-making for a living, it was the kind of experience that has refreshed my outlook and ramped up my excitement. The name of my site here, “Being Musical Being Human,” reflects a deep value of mine, but I don’t actually feel it as much as I’d like. Well, a few weeks ago, I felt it, and it was quite profound.
Enough suspense…I attended my first Dave Matthews Band concert. It was intensely rewarding, and I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since then. If you’ve been to one of their shows, then you know how compelling they can be. And if DMB isn’t your cup of tea, I’d still urge you to continue reading here. It’s taken me a few weeks to process the event for myself, and try to discover why it was so powerful. I believe that what I experienced can be of great value to musicians of all kinds.
First a little background. My good friend Mike is a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band. A while back he told me that he was taking me to a DMB concert…July 2012 at the Alpine Valley amphitheater in East Troy, WI. The drive from Nebraska to Wisconsin wouldn’t be too bad, he assured me, and it would be totally worth it to see this great live band do an outdoor concert. I was somewhat familiar with DMB, but I wouldn’t say I really knew them. It was more like I knew of them. I knew they were made up of good musicians and were known for live performing. So I figured it’d be good for me to go.
Before I left for the road trip with Mike, I resolved that I would not approach it like a music scholar. I would do my best to exit that part of my self. I was traveling away from home—and not for a conference this time!—and was confident that I wouldn’t run into anyone who’d greet me with a “Hey Dr. Woody.” So I decided to try to experience it like a regular person, if only for Mike’s sake…seriously, who’d want to hit a concert with me prattling on about cognitive translation of imagery-based music instruction, or some such thing?
It was a beautiful 75 degrees the night that Mike and I were joined by 30-some thousand of our closest friends on the concert grounds. I think the whole scene allowed me to take in the show like a normal person. Well, kind of. I did a good job of behaving like the throngs of concertgoers who packed into the amphitheater. Honestly I had a blast. I cheered, clapped, danced and sang along. But as I’ve reflected on the show since then, I realize I was able to experience—really feel—some of the wonderful things about music that I often teach, research, and advocate to others. It’s difficult to pick exact adjectives to describe it, but the words personal, emotional, and soulful are in the ballpark. In a deeply meaningful way, it reinforced a number of things that define the heart of music as I understand it.
First, the musical breadth of the Dave Matthews Band is inspiring to me. Not many rock bands include a violinist, trumpeter, and saxophone player, to go along with their guitars, bass, and drums. All of the DMB musicians have impressive credentials spanning the styles of jazz, classical, and a broad range of vernacular music styles (e.g., funk, hiphop, country, bluegrass). That July evening, it meant a lot to me as a trumpeter, to hear Rashawn Ross’s extended Harmon-muted solo on the song “Loving Wings” early in the concert. When he quoted the jazz standard “St. Thomas”—one of my favorites in my younger days—I felt like he was playing to me personally! (You can hear it at the 4:24 point in this recording.) Also at the concert, a surprise special guest was guitarist Stanley Jordan. He is known for his innovative guitar techniques and the mixing and blurring of musical genres. In fact on his website, he speaks passionately about his “belief in the integrationist spirit of music.” As impressed as I am with musicians who specialize and become excellent in one style of music, I’m flat amazed at those who explore more of the entire world of music and grow from it.
At the concert I was also reminded how many things go into the powerful experience of live music. I’m talking about everything from the visual aspects of performance and the musicians’ physical interactions onstage, to the open-air venue of the concert and the almost palpable adoration of the crowd. I call these kinds of things para-musical factors (rather than extra-musical) because I believe they are necessarily part of live music making and just as affecting as the musical sounds heard. As I’ve come to find out, live performance is what the Dave Matthews Band is all about. Having been together since the early 90s, the group has released a mere seven studio albums; only a handful of their songs have entered the top 20 of any Billboard US chart. In contrast, they’ve recorded nearly 50 live albums and have remained one of the most popular and prolific touring bands over the last two decades. Unlike many other musicians whose natural environment seems to be a practice room or recording studio, the DMB guys are in their element when playing live. Their collaboration is so much more than the combining of their individual parts. Their spontaneous communication with each other onstage is also enhanced by their interaction with the audience. Those in the crowd also become music-makers, constantly dancing, clapping, and singing along. This appeals to me incredibly. It’s one thing to appreciate great performance by musical experts, but when so-called “non-musicians” freely sing and make music together…well, that really fires me up!
The final moments of the concert for me were by far the most special to me. It was so evident that the musicians in the Dave Matthews Band really enjoy making music together. These guys were not obligated to play for nearly four hours that night, but they did. And in the final encore, they carried out a joy-filled cover of “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” (an old Sly and the Family Stone song with an intentional mondegreen title). As you can see for yourself in the video below, they had a lot of fun doing it. My favorite part was when Dave was practically overcome by the need to dance. He shed his guitar—which Stanley Jordan grabbed for himself—in order to better twist and strut around the stage! And perhaps this is my biggest take-home lesson from the DMB concert that I felt so deeply: from the audience perspective, there is nothing better than taking in a live performance of musicians who unmistakably love what they’re doing.