So, about that time Dave Matthews recorded a live album in small-town Iowa
Stevie Wonder once again took a knee for America at the Concert for Charlottesville, with Pharrell Williams and Dave Matthews joining the soul legend. (Sept. 25)
Editor's note: This story was originally published Jan. 18, 2019.
Before YouTube videos and Spotify playlists or stadium tours and exclusive cruises, fans experienced Dave Matthews through cassette tapes — raw and uncut concert audio collected by showgoers on handheld recorders.
An era pre-dating social media groups and hashtags, fans traded live tapes through snail mail and message boards.
It’s a point of pride in jam music fandom (or jam-adjacent fandom, depending on which Matthews follower you ask) to hear how each song came to life on a given night, in a given room.
And, in the mid-1990s, collecting a tape from each acoustic concert Matthews played with guitarist Tim Reynolds meant adding a new puzzle piece to picture a sound not yet captured on record.
“They weren’t underground because ‘Under The Table (and Dreaming)’ [Dave Matthews Band major label debut] was a big album, however, people had this great sense of discovery about the band even after they were released on an major label because their performances were so electric,” said Nikki Van Nay, author of “So Much To Say,” a Dave Matthews Band biography. “That translates directly to Dave and Tim.”
Then “Live at Luther College” happened.
Twenty years ago this week, Matthews and Reynolds released the debut duo live album captured in February 1996 on the the Decorah college campus. A 23-song double album matching the run time and pithy one-liners found in most superhero films, “Live at Luther College” remains a must-hear experience for Matthew’ musical appreciators.
“Most fans consider this to be the best Dave and Tim release, or at least among the top two or top three,” said Jake Vigliotti, co-founder of Dave Matthews fan site antsmarching.org. “It really has registered with people.”
But why Decorah? A small, liberal arts college in northeastern Iowa doesn’t scream “buy me!” from the record stand the way that “Live at the Ryman!” or “Red Rocks!” might.
Matthews’ team didn’t return comment, but press clippings from 1999 suggest the room’s acoustics played a role in the decision. The Luther student newspaper, College Chips, credits the “technical quality of the sound and concert night atmosphere,” in a Feb. 11, 1999, issue.
Plus, at that time, college campuses comprised a chunk of Matthews’ musical DNA. Acoustic tours with Reynolds played almost exclusively on or near a campus, where most students — including those at Luther — could score a free ticket.
The Luther student activities council booked the show, which sold out to roughly 1,500 ticket holders. One of three Iowa theater dates that week, ‘Live at Luther’ took place after some radio stations got hold of seminal hit “What Would You Say” but months before the band’s success spilled into the mainstream (and every summer romance mixtape) with “Crash Into Me.”
Fans that night got a taste of what would trickle into airwaves that summer as Matthews and Reynolds played “Crash” cuts such as six-minute versions of “Two Step” and “Tripping Billies.”
Before “Crash Into Me,” the recording catches a 29-year-old Matthews jesting that “It’s a sweet song, it’s a sweet song ... I hope.”
A Luther freshman in 1996, Eric Ellingson sat in orchestra pit seats, enamored with the energy two acoustic guitar players could unleash. He’d later buy a pair of the hall’s seats to put in his home — a nod of one of his favorite nights.
"We were all just blown away,” Ellingson said. “We had no idea what was going on.”
Commercial success greeted the album. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 sales chart, the highest-charting release with Tim Reynolds to date.
Critics offered lukewarm takes, with Entertainment Weekly writing “it’s all very pleasant” and People offering the album “may be hailed by fans but probably not by those unfamiliar.” The album found new life in 2017 when a limited vinyl box set of “Live at Luther” hit shelves for Record Store Day Black Friday.
Matthews and Reynolds returned to Luther campus in 1999 to celebrate the release — a longer show, archives show, with an audience ecstatic to celebrate its newfound place in Matthews history.
Want to hear it?
You’ll have to find the tape.
So, About That Time…, a series from the Register’s Matthew Leimkuehler, highlights Iowa’s obscure and overlooked musical moments. Have a story you’d like to share? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8358.
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