Song Stylist with Guitars: Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Live at Radio City

By Daniel Garrett

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds
Live at Radio City
RCA Records (Sony BMG), 2007

I cannot think of another male singer whose voice reminds me more of the spirit and style of jazz in the realm of guitar-and-drum music known as rock: full of tonal inflections, flirting with pitch, suggesting the hesitance of consideration and the subtle implication of comment and feeling, Dave Matthews’ voice indicates character and experience—masculine, sensitive, sexual, quirky, mocking, and thoughtful—and consequently Dave Matthews is a very unique song stylist. Singer-guitarist Matthews has a humble presence but one senses his mind and morality, and on Live at Radio City, a two-disk recording of a Radio City Music Hall concert he performed with his friend Tim Reynolds, an exceptional guitarist, Matthews makes casual comments—friendly, grateful (“it’s awesome to be here”), musical, and political (returning from Iraq, injured American soldiers are being denied benefits and signing bonuses)—that suggest Matthews’s gifts have not alienated him from daily life or ordinary people. The audience listening to the music of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds seems mostly enthusiastic and respectful.

In the first half of the concert, on disk one, Matthews and Reynolds perform “Bartender,” a song about and against forgetting and regretting, with a recognition of self-betrayal and evil in the world; “Stay or Leave,” which has a line about making plans to change the world while the world is changing us; a soulfully bluesy “Save Me” that ultimately affirms self-salvation in a multitude of Matthews’s voices (a technique calling to memory Bobby McFerrin); and “Crush,” in which emotion capsizes reason and sense while creating a vivid romanticism by suggesting woman’s power to overwhelm, with the guitar playing in “Crush” nearly eastern—intricate, taut, transporting. The performance of Daniel Lanois’s “The Maker” is contemplative, and the texture of the music is interesting, with perceptible musical figures.

“Beware of those who believe in a neat little world,” sings Matthews in “Eh hee,” a song focused on the difficulty of living and the necessity of humility and laughter and caution (“praise god who has many names but the devil has many more”).

Tim Reynolds plays “Betrayal,” creating a strange aural soundscape—fast, slow, deep, rumbling, floating, melodious, and rhythmic, with patterns that seem to ask and answer questions, while suggesting different guitar traditions. Matthews returns for “Out of My Hands,” for which Matthews plays piano (among other things, a smart way of returning the attention to himself). The two men perform the melancholy “Still Water” and close this portion of the concert with “Don’t Drink the Water,” which includes quotes from “This Land is Your Land.”

Beginning the second half of the concert, Dave Matthews alludes to the constancy of war and how different wars are seen (as necessary or not) when he mentions that he and Tim Reynolds last played Radio City Music Hall the night the Iraq war began and that the song “Oh” is about Matthews’s grandfather, who fought Erwin Rommel, the German general, in North Africa.

In the bluegrass-sounding “Cornbread,” about parental repression of young lust, are lines such as “it’s hot as a fire between her legs” and “the sin is so damn good” and “no guilt until you feel the beating,” and I am reminded that the urgencies of sex can still be a subversive thing, and that Matthews, like Springsteen, is able to capture the drive and romance of sexual desire better than many songwriters (which is to say they portray something both real and mythic). “Crash into Me,” a song I love, and always heard as erotic reverie, is the song that follows; and, whereas in the years-ago studio recording Matthews sang, “hike up your skirt a little more and show your world to me,” in concert Matthews sings, “hike up your skirt a little more—it’s all the world to me,” an edit that indicates the difference between female and male perspectives.

Matthews and Reynolds do Neil Young’s “Down by the River,” about a murdering love (the audience’s brief yelps seem inappropriate to me), and the men make the song their own, before Reynolds does a somewhat somber piece alone, “You Are My Sanity,” in which his playing has beauty, density, and surprise. When Matthews returns, Matthews introduces the song “Sister” with comments about how he and his sister had a childhood belief that the heart of each had been placed in the other’s chest, a fairly unforgettable memory of and metaphor for closeness: and one line from the song is “when you cry I feel your tears running down my face.” The applause is wild.

I did not find the lyrics of “Lie in Our Graves” particularly distinguished and found myself surprised by how elaborate the musical arrangement of the song was (I wonder if words were written after the music?). “Some Devil” is a bit of a weeper, and about the effect of someone who may be angel or devil. “Grace is Gone” is about drunken sorrow (“one more drink and I’ll move on” and “one drink to remember and another to forget”) and yet the song is mellow. Dave Matthews’s voice, too, is pleasant but not exactly mellow, and his singing and its effect are not simple; indeed, his singing is compelling and somewhat unsettling—one is compelled to pay attention to his varied inflections and that creates a certain tension, not knowing exactly what or where the inflections will be (one considers what those inflections mean in terms of experience and thought). The uptempo “Dancing Nancies,” a recitation of childhood thoughts—the narrator recounts wanting to be a space man and a fireman, and wonders what else he might have become, a parking attendant, a millionaire?—and a song in which a man wonders “could I have been anyone other than me?” is a song that could have been called “Dancing Fancies” and also contains the line—possibly wisdom—“what’s the use of hurrying?” And, the second disk ends with the performance of “Two Step,” which does remind me of traditional fiddle music.

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African,, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen,, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option,, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.