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The Church of Dave: How Saratoga Came to Worship the Dave Matthews Band

DMB, who have been playing at SPAC since the '90s, have become a fixture in the Spa City's summer arts scene.

The Dave Matthews Band have been playing two-night mini-residencies at SPAC since the early aughts. (Elario Photography)

Technically, you could say that I became a man over Memorial Day weekend in 1993, when I was bar mitzvahed. All of my friends and extended family gathered at Temple Sinai in Downtown Saratoga Springs, where I recited ancient Hebrew text from the Torah, wrapped in a prayer shawl, wearing a yarmulke, as serious as I’ve ever been. But there is definitely a more common “coming of age” ceremony for teenagers in Saratoga: going to see the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) perform live at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) for the first time. 

My own first show was on Saturday, June 8, 1996, and I was accompanied by my older brother and one of his friends; we sat in the amphitheater, and my exact seat was No.23 in Section 11, Row LL (I still have the ticket stub). It was only the band’s second performance at SPAC, the first of which had taken place in September 1994, when DMB was one of the headliners at the fledgling Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere (H.O.R.D.E.) festival, which had quickly become the prime showcase for young artists of all shapes and sizes in the “jam band” scene. (That descriptor is a convenient, if not somewhat pejorative, way to pigeonhole bands that, in the vein of lysergic West Coast antiheroes The Grateful Dead, tend towards long, drawn-out musical improvisation and extended solos.) 

Two months before DMB arrived for that gig in ’96, the band had released its second studio album, Crash, which went on to become their best-selling of all time, eventually cresting at No.2 on the Billboard charts; spawning a string of hits, including “So Much to Say” and “Crash Into Me,” to name a few; and going seven times multiplatinum. Most of what happened that night was a blur—the single-song encore was a fiery cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” maybe an unknowing tip of the cap to the famed troubadour who’d famously played a pair of shows across town at Caffè Lena in the early ’60s—but above all, I remember feeling a great weight lifted off of my shoulders. I may have read from the holy scriptures at age 13—and that, indeed, was a special occasion—but this…this was a religious experience. 

Surprisingly, DMB had been a band for only a handful of years before that first SPAC appearance in ’94. They formed just three years earlier in Charlottesville, VA, as a quasi-vehicle for local bartender/actor Dave Matthews’ budding side-hustle as a songwriter. Matthews, who was born in South Africa and ping-ponged between there, England and the States, before landing permanently in Virginia in 1989, had decided it was time to put some of his songs to cassette tape, so he enlisted a rag-tag group of local talent to build out his sound, some of whom played regularly at Miller’s, the spot where he tended bar: drummer Carter Beauford, saxophonist LeRoi Moore, bassist Stefan Lessard (who joined the band at 16), keyboardist Peter Griesar and violinist Boyd Tinsley. Something gelled, because soon thereafter, the band established themselves as a local favorite, playing gigs at Charlottesville nightclub Trax, as well as a number of other venues and festivals in North Carolina and Virginia. 

It was around this time that Matthews got to know fellow guitarist and songwriter Tim Reynolds, a non-singing, fast-fingered, mad scientist on the six-string, who at the time, had been playing solo gigs every Monday night at Miller’s. “I got to know him right away,” says Reynolds of his longtime friend, songwriting partner and later, bandmate. “It was immediately high-school-buddy mode. He was 10 years younger than me, but he was also relating to all the classic rock that I grew up with and he knew about younger bands.” Reynolds remembers one of the first times they sat down to play music together: “Dave sang, and I played a bunch of music, and before the end of the night, he sat down at the piano and played something, and I was like, ‘He’s like Paul McCartney.’ I could tell he was extremely musical. At the time he was an actor, doing full-time acting and being a bartender, and he was very famous in the local scene. So when he shifted to a band, he already had a crowd waiting to see him do that.” 

Dave Matthews performing at SPAC in 2018. (René Heumer)

Like Billy Preston was to The Beatles, Reynolds would eventually become the phantom extra member of DMB, playing on all of the band’s ’90s records and later joining up as a full, touring member in the aughts. (He’s also performed, toured and recorded extensively with Matthews as a duo as well.) “Dave’s songwriting is unique,” says Reynolds. “The rhythm and even the way he fingers [the guitar] is unique. He uses his pinkie as the main thing, and it’s different from when you use your pinkie and play solo lines like classical or jazz. He uses it like a giant muscle to clamp down chord bases.” He knew Matthews was onto something when he first heard “Satellite”—an eventual hit song and crowd favorite: “I was like, that’s some unique shit right there.”

By 1992, the band had gained a loyal following, as part of the local bar and fraternity house scene, and began booking shows outside of their comfort zone, first playing a gig at 23 East Cabaret in Ardmore, PA, then at two venerable New York City nightclubs, the Wetlands Preserve and CBGB. “One of the reasons I didn’t tour with them when they were coming up,” says Reynolds, “is that once they started being established, they toured all year long and really dogged the road.” The band played hundreds of shows per year—in 1992, some 166 alone—and it was difficult for Reynolds to perform his own music (with his trio TR3) outside of an arrangement like that. (Plus, he had toured in the late ’70s in cover bands, too, and felt like he’d already experience the road.) DMB would end up making their way up and down the Eastern seaboard, having been welcomed with open arms into the budding jam band scene, which at that time, included bands such as Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, The Samples, Phish, Big Head Todd & The Monsters and Widespread Panic. That same year, Blues Traveler concocted a traveling carnival of a rock festival to showcase their and their friends’ music, the aforementioned H.O.R.D.E. festival. In ’93, DMB jumped on the lineup for a pair of home-state dates, rising to the level of headliner the following year, when the band arrived at SPAC for the first time. Later that year, they self-released their independent debut, Remember Two Things, which consisted mostly of live cuts and one-off studio session pieces, featuring Reynolds on four out of the 10 tracks (it’s since gone platinum). Unlike their 25-plus song sets that they played at SPAC in 2019, DMB was allotted time for just nine songs at their SPAC debut, ending their set with “Typical Situation,” which would later appear on their major label debut, Under the Table and Dreaming, recorded just south of Saratoga at Bearsville Studios near Woodstock. Released on September 27, 1994, it was almost an immediate commercial hit, peaking at No.11 on the Billboard 200 and vaulting the band into superstardom (it would eventually go six times multiplatinum). Reynolds appeared on every track, doubling Matthews’ guitar parts. The resultant album is nothing short of a glorious wall of sound.

With just a few minor exceptions—1995, 1999, 2011 and this July’s two-night SPAC mini-residence, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis—DMB has been playing almost entirely uninterrupted in Saratoga for more than two decades. With maybe the exception of fellow jammers Phish, DMB has had the longest-standing relationship of any band with the people of Saratoga, and like the ants that we are, we march back, year after year, for more. In those twenty-some-odd years, the band has played SPAC a staggering 37 times, beginning their annual two-night stands in 2001. (Matthews and Reynolds have also appeared at SPAC as a duo three times.) 

“I was working in the [SPAC] box office the first year that the lawn sold out,” says Saratoga native Tim Harris, now a carpenter in Greenfield. (He can’t quite place the exact year, but he thinks it might’ve been ’98.) “I was sick of answering the same question over and over, so I made a big, ugly, marker-drawn sign that said ‘Dave is really sold out. Yes, that means lawn, too!’ A picture made it into The Saratogian.” Misha Duvernoy, a teacher and horse breeder based in Hebron, NY, who grew up in Wilton, remembers “camping” outside of SPAC’s box office and the long-shuttered Broadway record store, Strawberries, to nab DMB tickets. “I think I enjoyed hanging out with friends and waiting to buy tickets just as much as actually going to the shows,” she says. In other words, the DMB experience started long before the crowds ever streamed into SPAC; it was as much about being part of a community as it was being at the actual show itself—something that is amplified when you grow up in a small town like Saratoga. Native Saratogian Liz Marcell Williams, who nowadays is the CEO of the Center for Resilience in New Orleans, remembers her first DMB show like it was yesterday: “Front row, orchestra pit, elbows on the stage, summer 1996,” she says. “Ben Harper opened, and Dave sat in the wings and air drummed during his set.” When DMB came back the following summer, Marcell Williams met Matthews backstage. She even reveals that it was my older brother that turned her onto the band in 1994 in the first place. (I can attest; he was an early adopter of many bands that became my favorites, too.) “I fell madly in love with Dave at that first SPAC show and have now seen him about 30 times,” she says. “It never gets old.”

The latest lineup of the Dave Matthews Band features (from left): Tim Reynolds (lead guitar), Stefan Lessard (bass), Buddy Strong (keyboards/backing vocals); Dave Matthews (lead vocals/rhythm guitar); Jeff Coffin (saxophone); Rashawn Ross (trumpet/backing vocals); and Carter Beauford (drums/backing vocals).

Even the band itself has a mutual admiration for the city. “They’re always great,” says Reynolds of DMB’s Saratoga fans. “For awhile, it was a challenge to find a hotel where we could have privacy—a couple times we stayed in some other town.” (Reynolds played his first pair of SPAC shows in 2008.) “It’s a really charming little town,” says Reynolds of Saratoga. “I al ways like going there.” In a 2018 interview in New York magazine, Matthews even gave SPAC a shout-out: “When Tim and I played for 20-something-thousand people in Saratoga Springs last summer, the crowd was jumping around and having a great time—and we were having a great time—but it was like ‘Holy shit!’ You’re just trying to ride the energy as best you can.” (For those keeping track, capacity at SPAC is a little over 25,000.) For any Saratogian who’s ever been to SPAC to see DMB, it’s unlike any other show that Live Nation puts on there; it’s simply an electrifying experience, one that’s hard to put into words. It’s as though the whole city is there, listening, hanging on Matthews’ every word. 

DMB even shares Saratoga’s penchant for generosity; they’re basically the Marylou Whitney of the music world. In its nearly three decades in existence, the band has raised tens of millions of dollars for organizations such as the Bridge School, a California-based school for children with severe speech and physical impairments; Farm Aid, a concert series founded by fellow musicians Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp (Matthews has been on its board since 2001), which raises awareness and dollars for family farmers across the country; The Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees campaign, a forest restoration effort with the goal of planting a billion trees around the world by 2025; as well as Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, Every Mother Counts and the Special Olympics (there are countless others). In 1999, the band formed their own Bama Works Fund, which has raised $52 million for initiatives in their hometown of Charlottesville and beyond. And they’ve even (literally) leant a hand to one of our local nonprofits—Ballsfest, a cancer awareness organization that was founded in 2008 outside of a DMB show at SPAC. Matthews signed a guitar that the nonprofit later auctioned off for more than $5,000. (Ballsfest Founder Frank DeBlasi is a DMB superfan, having seen the band perform more than 275 times at more than 40 different venues, with SPAC being his favorite.)

Although the DMB lineup of the early ’90s is no longer—Griesar left the band in ’93, Moore passed away in ’08 and Tinsley was fired in ’18—the band has, in many ways, become an even tighter, stronger unit than ever before. Surrounding the original core of Matthews, Beauford and Lessard are now lead guitarist Reynolds; saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who filled in after Moore’s death and became a full-time member soon thereafter; trumpeter Rashawn Ross, who’s been touring with the band since 2005 and has been a full-time member since 2006; and keyboardist/vocalist Buddy Strong, the band’s rookie, who joined in 2018, following Tinsley’s departure.

Regardless of who’s in the band or how many shows they play per summer, DMB’s annual pilgrimage to Saratoga, which has sometimes coincided with the Saratoga Race Course summer meet, has been a reason for the city to rejoice. Sure, you’ll hear the usual moans and groans from grumpy locals about the traffic snarls along Route 9 North or Route 50 when the band is in town, but that’s normal small-town jive. DMB’s mere presence in the Spa City has meant a revenue jolt to Downtown Saratoga’s restaurants, shops and hotels—and the secondary market for tickets to sold-out DMB shows has become a prospector’s paradise. In 2017 and 2018, Broadway restaurant Boca Bistro even tried to lure Matthews there the weekend of his SPAC performances via slickly produced music videos, promoting a prix fixe menu paired with Matthews’ own Dreaming Tree brand wines—yes, Matthews diversified his portfolio to include winemaking, too, when he cofounded the brand in 2011 (it’s named after a song from the band’s No.1 record, Before These Crowded Streets). He didn’t show up either time, but the videos went “local viral”—and the dinners have become a permanent fixture. 

On the same day that DMB canceled their entire 2020 summer tour, including their July 10-11 run at SPAC, they also announced that they’d be honoring tickets bought for the shows on the same dates next year. So even if we can’t see or hear DMB in the flesh this year, let me suggest ordering a bottle or two—maybe a case!—of Dreaming Tree from one of the five wine stores in Saratoga that carries it, dusting off that DMB concert T-shirt, cranking up whatever you use to listen to DMB these days to 11 and closing your eyes. You might just find yourself in Seat 23, Section 11, Row LL at SPAC. And it might just be the greatest night of your life.


Dave’s Band’s Superfans 

Checking in with DMB’s biggest (local) fans about their top SPAC experiences.

In early May, the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) postponed their annual, two-day affair at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC)—though they did immediately reschedule the dates to 2021 and will honor all tickets purchased. To some, DMB’s SPAC shows are nothing short of a national holiday, and Saratoga Living wanted to identify those mega-fans and honor their loyalty

Photographer JP Elario posing with Dave Matthews in 2006. (Elario Photography)

JP Elario, Photographer, Troy

“My first DMB at SPAC concert experience was 20 years ago on August 29, 2000. I know what my very first setlist was—and looking back at it now, it was a pretty good show. So good, actually, that DMB released the recording as part of their ongoing Live Trax series. Not many people have their first show as a live release. So, while I don’t remember the concert, I can actually listen to it whenever I want to. For me DMB at SPAC is like Christmas. There is something special about attending a DMB show there. Of the 39 DMB concerts I have attended in the past 20 years, 18 of them have been at SPAC. This is not counting the three I watched, partially, from the Hall of Springs in between first dances, toasts and cake cuttings while shooting weddings. Talk about torture for a superfan.”

Lisa DiAntonio (right) with Dave and her friend Nicole Nawrot. (Lisa DiAntonio)

Lisa DiAntonio, Research Scientist, Rexford

“I met Dave at the Olde Bryan Inn where my husband is the general manager. I waited at the bar until Dave was done eating and followed him out the back of the restaurant with my friend Nicole. He was so nice and warm despite the fact that I lost my ability to speak because he is my favorite. He drew a rhino on a receipt, which I later tattooed on my back.”

:::

Meghan Raymond, Lawyer, Gansevoort

“I saw Dave when he played H.O.R.D.E. in 1994. My most memorable experience was when I was able to meet [the band’s] LeRoi [Moore], Carter [Beauford], Stefan [Lessard] and Butch [Taylor] in Downtown Saratoga with my friend Erica back in 2002. Back in high school, I used to listen to cassette tapes of Dave’s gigs that he played back in North Carolina at the bar he worked at. Seeing Tim Reynolds play solo at Putnam Den in 2017 was pretty epic, too. Going to see DMB is what every summer revolves around for me.”

Al Pappo’s ticket from his first DMB show at SPAC. (Al Pappo)

Al Pappo, Pharma Operations Manager, Redding, MA

“My first SPAC show was in 2006. We needed a change of scenery from Boston area DMB shows, so my friend and I drove out. What stands out to me—besides the nervousness of going through security with my shoes and belt stuffed with Grey Goose nips—is driving down Broadway and saying, ‘This looks like a nice place,’ and not giving it much more thought. A few years later, I went out during racing season, was instantly hooked and have been back every August since.”

:::

Todd Martin, Educator, Saugerties

“My greatest Dave Matthews Band show experience was at SPAC—I believe it was the summer of ’97. Living in town and being a rambunctious teenager, my first choice to get into any show was always to jump the fence. I went to the show with my girlfriend at the time and another couple. Our intentions were to sit on the lawn near the Hall of Springs, because not everyone in the group wanted to hop the fence. When we got to the lawn spot, there was a stepladder propped up against the fence. I convinced my group that if we were to ever hop the fence, this was the time. So we did, and without chase. While walking through the big field on our way to the lawn section, four people walking the opposite way asked if we wanted their tickets. Having just gotten in for free, we said ‘No, thanks. We just hopped the fence!’ To which they replied ‘Are you sure? They are inside seats.’ Our jaws dropped. They said they’d come for the opening band and didn’t want to stick around for Dave. We gladly took the tickets and enjoyed a free show at SPAC in the amphitheater.”

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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