Meaning and the Mainstream: Entry One

At last, the night I had been waiting for came. July 28th, 2010, the night that Dave Matthews Band would be playing at the 1-800-Ask Gary Amphitheater (yes that’s the real name of the venue and yes I think it’s ridiculous). It would be my third year in a row seeing the band at this same venue, and while the previous two years I went solely out of desire to enjoy the music of one my favorite and the world’s most popular band, this time I would have another agenda.

I would be going to the Dave Matthew’s Band concert for a research project.

Now before you ask “What could that possibly have to do with research?” I would like to direct you to my abstract, in which I lay out that I want to see where popularity and complexity meet. Art that is both widely accepted and loved by millions, yet deeper and more meaningful than what is expected for a band that regularly sells platinum albums. For not only did I want to see a good show and listen to some “ sweet jams,” I also wanted to see one of the best lyricists of any band I have listened to, a musician who has defied genres and sings many of his songs in the free verse style more akin to Walt Whitman than to the front man of a popular rock band.

I knew, however, that the nature of the event may distract me from my utmost goal: Seeing the performer (Dave Matthews and his band) present their art, and analyzing the intricacies of this presentation. Would the band play only their most popular hits? Would they talk to the audience? What would they say? Would they introduce something new, or would it just be another version of the songs from their albums? What kind of people see this band, and do they realize the complexity of the music? Perhaps most importantly, are these questions worth asking? Or in other words, is Dave Matthews Band comparable to other pieces of art?

There would lots of beer, questionable substances, old friends, and not one, but TWO ex-girlfriends. This was going to be a rough night, but I had to stay focused.

And I did, and noticed several interesting things before I even walked into the concert. The first of which was the train wreck that is more commonly know as “a concert tailgate.” I saw two kids around my age in handcuffs, another man fall face down in the mud in a drunken stupor. Twenty-somethings simply screaming “Yeah Dave! Woo!” before returning to their drinks. Were these really the appreciators of a musician who sings about Native American Genocide and escaping the banalities of a modern existence?

As the concert began, the band mixed between playing popular songs, much less popular songs, and lapsing into “jam sessions”, or improvised group playing. One of these improvised pieces ended up lasting more than 20 minutes, with every member of the band breaking out a solo. I could tell it was improvised because the musicians occasionally messed up, or created a sound that wasn’t perfectly harmonious with the other instruments being played. Not one of the band members may have known where the music was going, but they were still playing, maybe even more passionately than when it was a well-rehearsed song. At the end of this particular jam, something magical happened. Dave Matthews himself had a solo. Not with his guitar however, but with his mouth. Imitating a trumpet, Dave proceeded to unleash a long series of notes, looking ridiculous as his face turned beat red and sweat poured down. I thought to myself as he continued, the singer now writhing violently as he made “burr pur burr” sounds with his mouth, “He makes millions of dollars a year. Why is he doing this?”

In the end, I got what I came for, and during the show it seemed that Dave Matthews Band, despite their widespread fame and popularity, as well as their wealth, would have probably played the same type of show if half the number of people who crammed into the theater showed up, or even if no one had came at all. The experience was something that I will definitely bring up in my project, as I continue on to other genres to find the meeting point of mainstream and meaning.