Live At Luther College

Dave Matthews And Tim Reynolds

RCA, 1999

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Three studio albums into the dizzying arc that took the Dave Matthews Band from unique regional jam band to nationwide phenomenon, maybe the last thing anyone expected from Matthews was a two-disc live album chronicling his 1996 acoustic duo tour with friend and sometime DMB guest guitarist Tim Reynolds. Which is probably half the reason the ever-contrary Matthews released it, the other half being the fact that it’s an incredibly entertaining document of that experience.

The DMB’s repertoire is known as much as anything for the intense interplay between Matthews’ acoustic guitar, Leroi Moore’s horns, Boyd Tinsley’s violin, and the versatile rhythm section of Stefan Lessard (bass) and Carter Beauford (drums), with keyboards and electric guitar making occasional guest appearances. Stripping his tunes down to just two acoustic guitars and Matthews’ voice enables you to hear these mostly familiar songs in a completely new way.

The key to the whole experience, though, is that when you strip away all the other instruments, you’re left with, in Reynolds and Matthews, a pair of absolutely phenomenal acoustic guitar players, supporting Matthews’ elastic, gymnastic (and often fantastic) vocals. The power and churning energy of the music the pair are able to generate together is stunning.

Openers “One Sweet World” and “#41” serve as lilting comfort-food appetizers to a main course that starts with “Tripping Billies,” a great example of how the acoustic-duo setting generates fresh dynamics. The core hook is the same, of course, but in place of the accents supplied by the full band in the original, Reynolds busts off little fusillades of notes whose spectacular dexterity earns loud cheers from the crowd.

The acoustic setting also creates new spaces inside these songs that make them feel fresh. On “Jimi Thing”—a tune that’s almost prog-rock in its serial moods and phases—the space created serves to underscore both the intensity of Matthews’ vocal and the brilliance of the song’s shifting melodies. Another early highlight, “Satellite” puts the emphasis squarely on the interplay between the two guitarists, even as Matthews demonstrates his casual mastery of his own instrument, swerving from his normal singing voice to falsetto and back on a dime. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There are inevitably places where the band is missed a bit. The original version of “Crash” is lit up by Leroi Moore’s silky, sensuous sax lines, but since its main riff was always played on acoustic guitar anyway, the core of the song remains intact here, with that much more emphasis placed on the casual intensity of Matthews’ vocals. The same could be said of “Lover Lay Down” and “Dancing Nancies,” the latter retaining its drive, but missing Moore’s stratospheric solos.

Early hit “What Would You Say,” a wildly exotic confection in the original studio version, gets a slowed-down, funked-up treatment here, with Matthews stretching and pulling his own creation like taffy, throwing hairpin turns into his delivery before it snaps back to the familiar melody line. The instrumental break is a highlight, as Matthews maintains a bed of thrumming, propulsive rhythm acoustic guitar while Reynolds delivers a dazzling meteor of a solo. Matthews closes it out with a freakout scat-singing solo that is somewhere between bizarre and hilarious, almost an extension of the playful between-song banter that has him donning, among others, a remarkably good British accent. Stepping outside of his usual context also gives Matthews the chance to pull some deep tracks from the vault, like the suitably keening “Minarets,” the dark, eerie “Deed Is Done,” and the affectionate character sketch “Little Thing.”

The second set (and disc) opens with “Typical Situation,” which reminds you again how many DMB songs are built from a foundation of acoustic guitar. It’s hard not to miss Boyd Tinsley’s violin here, but the core of the song is vibrant as ever, and Reynolds’ rippling, rhythmic solo helps ensure the track remains one of the highlights of the set.

If you haven’t already gotten there, Reynolds’ solo instrumental “Stream” will cement your belief that the man is a magician, or at least a terrifyingly talented guitar player. The speed and agility of his runs is astonishing, and the loop effects he deploys towards the end carry the tune off into another dimension entirely.

An extended version of DMB favorite “Warehouse” follows, clocking in at nine minutes of sustained intensity, with old favorites “Seek Up” and “Say Goodbye” then teeing up the evening’s highlight. “Ants Marching” is simply spectacular, a bright explosion of acoustic rhythm guitar as Matthews’s distinctive vocals drive the song into fourth gear. Ironically, for a tune where Moore and Tinsley both have great, dynamic parts in the original band arrangement, they’re not particularly missed here; Matthews and Reynolds pull this one off beautifully, the latter delivering another amazing, squealing, soaring solo full of echo. Closer “Two-Step,” by contrast, misses Matthews’ bandmates moreso than other tracks, though it’s not a bad thing to have a mellowed-out rendition of a familiar tune finish off the evening.

Since Live At Luther College came out in 1999, both the DMB and the duo of Matthews and Reynolds have issued multiple new live recordings. This one remains special, though, both because it concentrates on the DMB’s earliest and best work, and because at the time it was such a revelation. Two guys with acoustic guitars, playing songs that originally featured five and six and seven players, and not just making it work, but making one of the best live albums of the 1990s.

Rating: A-

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