‘Come Tomorrow,’ Today: DMB in 2018
photo by Rene Huemer
For Dave Matthews Band, 2018 has come to be one of the most significant, unpredictable, promising, challenging, reassuring, peculiar and important years in the history of the group’s existence.
An abbreviated list of DMB notables, in no certain order, much of which we’ll get into momentarily, includes:
1. The abrupt departure of a founding member
2. A subsequent, disturbing lawsuit against said founding member by a former mentee
3. The band replacing its high-profile violinist with a keyboard player
4. The release of a new album, Come Tomorrow, the band’s first in six years
5. Said album debuting at No. 1, marking an industry-record seventh consecutive time that’s happened
6. An Oscar-nominated movie prompting some in the music-critic space to reexamine the DMB’s credentials
7. A critically acclaimed indie-rocker deciding to cover in full DMB’s beloved, gloomy lost classic, The Lillywhite Sessions
8. An out-of-nowhere leak of uncooked 2006 studio material that brought even more questions
9. The band, curiously, not getting named for consideration in its initial year of eligibility for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
All of this happened, by the way, amid the 20-year anniversary of the group’s best album, Before These Crowded Streets. (Somewhat surprisingly, the band and its management did little to mark the occasion.)
To wrap up a memorable year, DMB has embarked on its first fall tour since 2012. It’s a truncated run of a dozen shows that began in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 27 and will wrap in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Dec. 15. The band is also playing a concert in Miami Beach, Florida, on Dec. 28 in coordination with festivities surrounding the College Football Playoff. Incredibly, it’s the first time DMB has played show between Christmas and New Year’s Eve since 1996.
Over the weekend, DMB played three gigs in four nights, the first two at Madison Square Garden and the third at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun. On Tuesday, New Hampshire was treated to a fairly nontraditional setlist. The band is five shows deep into its quickie fall tour, and it’s off to a promising start. DMB hasn’t overly relied on Come Tomorrow material and has instead opted for a decent amount of setlist variety; the group’s played 57 different songs while making the conscious decision to open, and close, each set with a different tune. There hasn’t been one song repeated in an encore yet, either. For graying DMB fans hoping to get a taste of nostalgia 20 years after arguably its greatest tour ever — the fall 1998 stretch that continued the Before These Crowded Streets publicity push — it’s been refreshing.
The band is even proving capable of unleashing all-time performances.
The 14th song of the third show of the tour proved that, as “Cortez the Killer” was the highlight of the two-nigher in NYC, an indelible apex for this holiday-season stint. It’s possible DMB tops it later in December, but unlikely.
“We’ve got a lot of friends in New York,” Matthews said to the MSG crowd on Friday, just before introducing Warren Haynes to the stage.
What transpired over the next 17 minutes was a rarity in modern DMB canon. More than a decade after the death of saxophonist/flutist LeRoi Moore, and with the violin sound indefinitely phased out, there will be very few performances from now until the end of this band’s run that will go down as the best renditions of any given song.
Remarkably, the Friday show offered up just that.
Haynes lifted DMB’s cover of “Cortez” to a new level. There are a few absolutely classic DMB versions of the Neil Young cover that the band has pulled off over the past two decades (see: Central Park in 2003), but 11.30.18’s “Cortez” is now the champion and almost certainly forever will remain so. Listen to it. Watch it. Believe it. This has taken the throne.
Over two nights in the middle of Manhattan, DMB exhibited its typical live-show brawn — and even some of its newfound nimbleness. Sure, the glare-and-blare sound that DMB’s leaned into over much of the past decade isn’t going away; ironically, 61-year-old drummer Carter Beauford appears to be fighting the aging process by playing with and bit less pizzazz and certainly more brute force than he’s ever shown before. But there was an array of impressive song choices and sonic journeys therein at the Garden. New keyboardist Buddy Strong has added layers to a number of tunes — “Seek Up,” “Captain,” “Typical Situation” and “Minarets” all feel more fulfilling with his additions — that have given both heft and nuance to portions of the band’s catalog.
And yet it still feels a little strange to see DMB without, to quote Matthews, that “whirling-dervish Adonis-Muppet” that is Boyd Tinsley on the stage.
The Tinsley stuff ties back into how unusual this year has been for Dave Matthews Band. The violinist — whose oft-turbulent playing and crowd-capturing stage presence defined a not-insignificant part of DMB’s identity for almost all of its existence — was fired from the band at some point, though the precise when-and-how is still unclear. Tinsley is currently scheduled to go to federal court in Washington State in 2019 due to allegations of sexual abuse by James Frost-Winn, a former bandmate of Tinsley’s in his side project, Crystal Garden.
The Tinsley news had a bizarre timeline: in February, DMB had a concert in Minneapolis the night before Super Bowl LII. Tinsley, as far as the public could discern, was a last-minute no-show. Tinsley announced a “break” from the band and touring approximately 24 hours before the concert. (The band had already announced its summer tour and sold tickets prior to this coming out as well.) Three months later, in May, the allegations against Tinsley were made public when Consequence of Sound posted a story in which Frost-Winn laid out his claims, many of them alarming. In between all that, DMB wrapped production and mixing on Come Tomorrow, which was released on June 8 to relatively solid reviews … and mysteriously featured Tinsley on just one song.
This all came as a critical reassessment of the band’s legacy took place. The spark? The movie Ladybird, which included two scenes featuring “Crash Into Me” and gave a certain gravitas to the early portion of Matthews’ songwriting career from those who otherwise/ignorantly dismissed DMB as a hacky-sack ‘90s act whose reputation was built thanks in large part to white college bros and their parents’ deep pockets.
Indeed, 2018 gave a DMB’s career a pivot point, which was ironic given the preceding drama behind the scenes with Tinsley. Even Howard Stern, a longtime DMB detractor, had Matthews on his radio show to talk and perform. In the interviews surrounding the release of Come Tomorrow, Matthews spoke of a renewed energy on stage. Strong coming aboard (his showmanship fills some of the void Tinsley’s departure opened) led Matthews on multiple occasions to say the band was collectively more excited about its live act than it had been in approximately a decade.
If the band is having a better time performing in 2018 than it was in 2016, 2015 or the years before that, it’s tough to tell from 20, 40 or 100 rows back. We’ll just have to take Matthews at his word. One of DMB’s most vital traits has been its ability to put on a grand gig and seldom let the behind-the-scenes stresses or conflicts materialize between 8:20 and 11 p.m. local.
Given the changes, and Tinsley’s own admitted demons, it seems unlikely he ever fully returns to the band; 2018 ushered in a new era. DMB can keep going and still play arenas for probably as long as it wants to remain a touring band, but this year provided an opportunity, amid a bad situation, to change up its sound, try a new direction and open up a shot at reinvention.
Things got even more interesting and unexpected in October, when a leak of the 2006 “Batson Sessions” gave fans a flashback to the dopamine hit that was the Lillywhite Sessions Napster-aided hack from 2001. The “Batson Sessions” aren’t nearly as good, but the recordings did provide a rare opportunity for the fans to hear raw song ideas, a few of which were promising but inevitably shelved, if not outright discarded. (For the curious, check YouTube and seek out “Drive Me Away,” “Early Home” and “Recovered.”)
As the band turns to 2019, a side plot will be to wait and see if Matthews acknowledges the leak by pulling out a few songs from those sessions and tossing them into his setlists. “Break Free” and “Kill the King,” which are previously played fan favorites that were also recorded in 2006, have not-so-coincidentally been played in the past week.
In light of such a noisy year, there’s a fertile opening here for the band. With Strong in the fold, will DMB try to release a record by, say, end of 2020? After all, a lot of material was considered for, but didn’t make, Come Tomorrow.
As 2018 comes to a close and the Come Tomorrow promotional sequence wanes, the looming question of if DMB will never have a violin again is probably the biggest question heading into the next phase. That violin sound was part of DMB’s selling point in the early ‘90s and became intrinsic to the band’s identity over the past 25 years. No matter how good-to-great its live shows continue to be, it’s still hard for some fans to separate from that.
After the turmoil from earlier this year, this compact fall tour seems to have DMB intent on ending 2018 with surer footing and a stronger groove. For such a big act, there’s still a lot of mystery behind how the band keeps everything moving relatively smoothly. And it’s because of that that 2018 lines up alongside 1994, 1995, 1998, 2000 and 2008 as one the most important years to this point in the band’s illustrious career.