The Once and Future Fan
by J. Tobias Beard
I was a 16-year-old high school student when I first discovered a local Charlottesville band called The Dave Matthews Band. I quickly became one of the many original fans, going to see them every Tuesday night at a local club. By the time they made it big, I had moved on. Fifteen years later the band returned to town, and I talked to some new fans to try and find out where my passion had gone. Published in C-VILLE on 9/18/2006.
I didn’t want to like the Dave Matthews Band. In fact I tried hard not to. It was late 1991, I was 16 and a friend of mine told me about a friend of hers, Stefan, who went to Tandem and was in this band and we should seriously go see them. Right. Like I was going to go see a high school band. I already had a favorite local band, Indecision, and they were good, at least good enough to shuffle your feet to while holding a beer and looking around to see if anyone was laughing at you. But then someone else told me that I really had to go see this band, and so I did, early in 1992, at Trax, and that was the end of my interest in any other local music. It was the beginning of my love affair with the Dave Matthews Band, a love affair that would last for three intense and crazy years before it almost, but not quite, faded away. It seems now that there are no traces left of the old Dave Matthews Band, and yet, DMB is everywhere.
Simon Evans is a skinny 15-year-old with shaggy hair that threatens to be long. When we meet, he is wearing a gray-ish shirt, cargo shorts, and what look like familiar Birkenstock-style sandals. He basically looks just like me at 15. I find this oddly refreshing. When I meet him he is six days away from becoming a freshman at Albemarle High School. We talk in a quiet practice room at the Music Resource Center, an old church whose basement has been turned into a place for kids to learn, play, and record music. Simon leans back in his chair comfortably, but his hands move a lot when he talks. He seems eager.
“Every time I listen to ‘em,” he says, “I get, like, a really…it’s a good feeling, but it’s kind of eerie to know they’re from here. But then you hear their songs, their music, and it’s so good it’s, like, you just want to keep on listening. That’s why, like, once I heard one song I’d go buy a couple albums. One leads to another, and then you just get hooked on Dave Matthews.”
Simon, like most people at his age, is awkward and vague. He’s fumbling towards adulthood faster than he seems to realize. He is also confident and savvy and enthusiastic about his life right now in a way that’s unfamiliar to me and that bodes well for his life 10 years from now. He plays bass in a band called the Deltas. Last month they played their first gig at Starr Hill. Getting to do so was the second-place prize in a battle of the bands at the Music Resource Center. The MRC seems to be the Deltas’ second home, and they are currently recording their first album there.
Simon has never seen the Dave Matthews Band live, except on a TV screen. On September 24, 2003, DMB played for a crowd of almost 100,000 people on the Great Lawn of Central Park. It was one of the largest crowds they’ve ever played for, and it marked the moment when everyone, the band included, realized just how big they had become. “When I was first getting into them,” Simon tells me, ”before I bought the iTunes albums I went on Netflix and rented the Central Park concert. And so seeing them live…me and my mom were just blown away, we were just like WOW, you know?” Simon fell for the band at the exact point when they were as far away from their beginning as they could possibly be. I find this mildly upsetting; to him it doesn’t seem to matter much. It’s been 12 years since I last saw the band, and maybe 10 since I stopped listening to them. When I listen to the Central Park concert it’s exciting and unsettling in equal measures. I realize I have locked the band in a time capsule; they cannot mean anything but what they had once meant to me.
And what was that exactly? Strangely, I don’t know anymore. It is almost a shock to find that the band still sounds good. I even like some of the new songs. I wish I could somehow let Simon hear what they used to be like, to see if his reaction to the past is different from my reaction to the present. I ask him if he has ever heard any old bootleg tapes of the band and he says no, not really, but:
SE: Actually I saw [DMB], I don’t know whether it was at a festival, I must have been looking at like some video online or something, and it was, like, back in ‘92, I think, and it was just really cool seeing them, like, before they got big. You know, you see them, everybody’s havin’ a picnic, everyone’s just being calm…
JTB: Was it Van Rypers?
SE: I think it was at Van Rypers, yeah. And they played “Two Step” and people started dancing, it was really cool.
April 5, 1992. Van Ryper’s Music Festival, in Nelson County, outside of Charlottesville. There is a frightening number of Baja Jackets and everyone seems to have long hair. DMB plays on the rough wooden stage under budding trees. The field of people stretches back to the roped-off section on a hill where those who want to drink are sequestered, lonely and far from the action. I was there and I danced. I had a tape of that show. I was an early and serious taper, lugging a tape deck to the shows at Trax, which the soundman, Jeff “Bagby” Thomas would patch into the soundboard. I had no idea then what a privilege that was. After all, Bagby was just a kid like us: he drove me to school every morning. Those meticulously labeled and catalogued live tapes, hauled around in two suitcases, were more valuable to me than any I had bought in a store. The best tapes I had were the ones that were unmistakably Charlottesville: The first four-song demo that Dave made before he got a band, a two-hour WTJU show that Dave and Tim Reynolds did (they sound extremely stoned), and a badly recorded and unlabeled tape that was rumored to have been made by Dave himself as a Christmas present for his friends and family. This last one may have been a complete fake, but I was an obsessive fan before there were websites and discussion boards. All I had was the whispered fog of rumors, and I milked them for all they were worth.
Here is everything that Simon knows about the history of the Dave Matthews Band: “I think Dave Matthews was a bartender at Miller’s, right? And they played at Miller’s. That’s pretty much it.” That’s pretty much it? I want to cry.
I do not know the Dave Matthews Band outside the context of Trax. A large faux Tudor shit hole, Trax stood at 120 11th St., near the University and far from pretty. You had to get past Marty, the walrus-like doorman, to enter the big room that always smelled faintly of vomit and old beer, with the strange roof feature to the right and pool tables and videogames over to the left. There were two equally nasty bars to ease the procurement of cheap beer that would then compel you towards the restrooms which always had lines, overflowing toilets, and non-locking, non-shutting stall doors. All of this draped in black light, the better to illuminate the huge “Stairway to Heaven” mural behind the stage, which someone must have seen on the side of a van and thought “Wicked, I gotta have that in the club.”
Lyle Begiebing is also a 15-year-old Dave Matthews Band fan. I meet him and Simon on another day at the Omni where we talk over iced tea and Cokes. Lyle was born here, and unlike Simon, he has seen the band twice. His parents went to UVA and used to go see the band on some of those early, electric nights. Lyle is a drummer, and in concert he mostly watches Carter Beauford. “[Carter]’s the best around. I play along to the albums but it’s impossible to do everything he does. I’m trying to learn how to play the same style, like, open: He doesn’t cross [his arms] when he plays.” Lyle has piercing blue-gray eyes that almost never leave mine as he hunches over, talking quietly. He is wearing a Cal-Berkeley hat and a DMB shirt, purchased at Nissan Pavilion in June. I’m pretty sure he wore the shirt so I would be able to spot him, which strikes me as clever. I ask him what it is exactly that he likes about the band and he says that he likes “how their songs aren’t, like, two-and-a-half minutes. It’s not held back … they don’t have just like chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, all of that. It’s a lot more.
“Dave’s just such a good songwriter. Of course Leroi and Boyd add a lot to it that no one else could ever copy. It’s different than just, like, a guitar, bass and drums, ‘cause you have sax and violin.”
Neither teenager will tell me how the Dave Matthews Band makes them feel, and I am a little embarrassed to press the point. They are both musicians, so maybe that’s why they seem to think of the band in purely technical terms. I cared about the Dave Matthews Band because they made me joyful, giddy, and comforted when life seemed hopeless. I was obsessed with Dave and what he was saying to me. When he sang “23 and so tired of life, such a shame to throw it all away” in “Dancing Nancies,” I felt certain that, like me, he was overwhelmed at how hard life seems when you are young. And when he sang, “open up my head and let me out” in “So Much to Say,” I thought, “Yes, exactly.”
I don’t know who all of them were, the first young Dave Matthews Band fans, except in the ways that they were probably roughly like me. We skewed towards Albemarle County Hippie; those middle- to upper-class kids who were the first spawn of the Baby Boomers, who wore Duckhead khakis with boutique tie-dyes, and drove Jeep Wagoneers to Dead shows. It was the Dawning of the Age of Equestrious. We would begin by sitting on the floor in front of the stage, the better to talk while Dave came out and played a solo set, and then when the band came on we would leap to our feet, ecstatic and dancing. Their music seemed utterly unique: Fiddle! Saxophone! A drummer with four arms! And Dave! Dancing and grimacing as he squeaked, hiccupped, ululated, scatted, yodeled, growled, roared, giggled; it’s not what I would have previously called singing. And the band moving from cheesy love songs to bouncy syncopated Afro-pop, to raging acoustic metal that was as demonic and aggressive as anything Black Sabbath ever played. If there were some things I know we shared, we young DMB fans, it was excitement and immediacy. Something was finally happening in our lives and in our town. The band never seemed local to me, never seemed to be anything but stars.
Trax is gone now. DMB was last there in 1996. The club closed in June 2001, and was torn down in 2003. There is now no trace of Dave left at 120 11th St. The titular railroad tracks are still there, of course, and the parking lot, site of much furtive and clandestine activity is still there, but that’s it. Where Trax used to be there now squats the gloriously named UVA Hospital Expansion Project Field Office. It’s a grey trailer lined in front with air conditioning units. Like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz, this nondescript building crushes my youth. It is all vacant lot, boxcar, loading dock and industrial trash, set to the soft hum of machinery. No trace of Dave and no music.
What does Simon think about the fact that the band used to be small and local? What about the fact that they used to play here every Tuesday in a little club? “It’s kind of encouraging,” he says, “since I’m in a band. It’s really cool to think that Dave Matthews, he used to be local.”
In a very real way Simon is a child of the Dave Matthews Band. Born five days after they played their first concert at Trax, he has never known a world in which DMB didn’t exist. The band is a big donor to the Music Resource Center, where Simon could be beginning his career as a musician. Pictures of the Dave Matthews Band hang on the walls, along with copies of their gold and platinum cds. They are arguably the reason that Simon can see Victor Wooten at the Paramount and the Rolling Stones at Scott Stadium, in a town where, six years ago, there seemed to be nothing to do. They are an inspiration.
With Simon and Lyle on my mind, I go to stare at the pink warehouse, the legendary building on South and First streets where Dave wrote the original set of DMB songs. What do I hope to find there? This building meant nothing to me when I was young. The Charlottesville I grew up in was the Charlottesville where the band was born, and I guess I’m looking for some way to get back to that time, that sense of beginnings. About six years ago I gave all of my DMB bootlegs to a 16-year-old fan in North Carolina. Suddenly I miss those tapes. I download some of DMB’s new music and all of the old stuff. I drive around Charlottesville playing Dave Matthews Band. I now find this fairly embarrassing. I try and will myself back to the time before the band’s website had more hats for sale than studio albums. Before the Dave Matthews Band became the Dave Matthews Brand. Before Dave’s voice began to sound pained, like his throat was filling up with blood. Before I became so cynical.
Lyle will go to both shows that the band will play at the John Paul Jones Arena, September 22 and 23. Simon doesn’t have tickets to the sold out shows, but he’s definitely going to go somehow. A lot of their friends are going.
Now I know that I have to see DMB again, September 23, the last show of the tour. Somehow. And I have to take Simon with me, so I can join him at his first Dave Matthews Band show, and recapture mine. Their music made me, at 16, slack-jawed and delirious. Maybe they just got to me before some other band did, but they did get to me. Can their music still get to me; can it still reach me today from 15 years ago the way it reached Simon all the way from New York City on a TV screen in Charlottesville?
JTB: Have you ever seen them around town?
SE: No I haven’t. I was on the phone with my mom when she called, and she was just, like, [whispers] Dave Matthews just walked by! I was like “oh, O.K.” I really wish I went to the Mall that day!
JTB: Do you know that pink building on South Street, that big pink building?
SE: I can’t really think of it right now.
JTB: Where South Street Brewery is? There’s a pink building.
SE: Yeah I probably haven’t paid attention.
JTB: It’s called the pink warehouse, and it’s the warehouse from the song “Warehouse.”
SE: Oh, really? Nice!
JTB: People say that the first show they ever played as a band was on the rooftop of that building.
SE: Aaaahhh! That is coool!
JTB: You’ll have to go check that warehouse out. Just go look at it. I don’t know what you’ll get from it, but…
SE: I’ll probably just sit there and try to think. Try to imagine them playing up there.