Backstage glimpse: BSU professor gets rare access to Dave Matthews tour
Editor's Note: This is the first of two submissions written by Del Lyren, professor of music at Bemidji State University, after he toured for three days with the Dave Matthews Band.
BEMIDJI - In June I had the opportunity to spend three days on tour with the Dave Matthews Band.
The purpose was to write an article for the International Trumpet Guild (ITG) Journal about the life of a "rock star" trumpet player.
The idea evolved from a conversation during the 2011 ITG conference, which I hosted in Minneapolis.
Rashawn Ross, trumpeter with DMB, and I ate lunch with six of my BSU college students, and they asked him numerous questions about touring and performing with DMB.
After answering questions for some time, Rashawn finally stated, "You can't really understand what it's like until you've walked in my shoes for a while."
Almost immediately, I had a "light-bulb moment" and thought the topic of the day-to-day life of a trumpet player touring and performing with a major rock band would make an interesting article.
After a year of planning, I toured with them, shadowed Rashawn and participated in nearly all of the band's activities. Rashawn arranged for me to have an all-access pass that allowed me to see and do everything on the tour. With the pass, I could stand backstage during the shows, wander into the photographers' pit in front of the stage during performances, mingle with the band and crew during meals and pre-concert preparations, ride in Rashawn's tour bus to and from the venues, witness the backstage hosting that is a big part of each band member's day, and attend post-show gatherings.
I stayed in the same hotel as the band, which offered me the opportunity to spend casual time with some of them, observe their interaction with fans, and get an idea of what the daily life is like as a rock star.
Dave Matthews Band is one of the busiest and highest grossing touring bands. Between 2000 and 2009, they sold more tickets to their shows than any other band in the world: more than 11 million tickets and grossing more than $500 million in tour receipts.
Rashawn's work with DMB remains quite different than the trumpet player's role with most major rock groups. Rather than the usual placement of instrumentalists on a platform behind the lead artist for backgrounds only, the trumpet in DMB plays a vital role. DMB is considered a "jam band" and they often do exactly that.
Many of the tunes provide opportunities to feature the trumpet prominently as soloist. Fans of DMB recognize the trumpet player as readily as they recognize the other band members. In fact, while standing in the photographers' pit between the front row and the stage, I noticed that fans in the crowd at concerts commonly scream Rashawn's name nearly as often as they scream Dave Matthews's name.
Walking down the street or eating in restaurants without being interrupted by a fan wanting a picture or an autograph becomes almost impossible.
DMB maintains some of the most loyal fans. On one during this tour, I met two ladies who planned to attend 10 shows this summer. After mentioning this to Jeff Coffin, sax player with DMB, he told me he once met a man who had attended more than 300 shows. It's not uncommon for fans of DMB to have seen 50 shows and more. Many fans wait outside the band's hotel hoping for a band member to appear so they can obtain an autograph. If the hotel's security will allow it, many fans wait in the hotel lobby and surround band members when they exit the elevator.
At one of our hotels, some loyal fans waited outside the band's hotel with guitars, hoping to see Dave Matthews and have him autograph the guitars. Little did they know that if they had walked into the hotel lobby, Dave was sitting on a couch just inside.
Fans wait for hours by the band's buses, hoping to view the band as they leave for the venue. Calls or texts from friends (and friends of friends) wanting concert tickets are commonplace. Sorting through these requests and trying to accommodate fans occupies a good portion of each band member's day while on tour.
My first day of the tour began at 10 a.m. in Indianapolis. I ate breakfast with Rashawn and Daryl (head of security for the band). We had an intriguing chat about the music industry and the consolidation of power among just a few individuals. I had no idea that so few people control so many things in the industry.
The company that manages DMB also manages more than 100 other bands, in addition to maintaining control over other aspects of the music industry including festivals, venues, and ticket sales. After breakfast, as we departed the restaurant a fan politely stopped Rashawn. She timidly introduced herself and said hello. They had a short conversation in which Rashawn was very gracious, and as we left he smiled and waved at her friends sitting at the table.
Following breakfast we enjoyed some free time until 2:30 p.m., when the DMB buses departed for the concert venue - the Klipsch Music Center in Noblesville, Ind. Dozens of fans lined up outside the hotel by the buses for about three hours hoping to meet one of the DMB members. Each band member was secretly escorted through a side door of the hotel to the bus, but it's difficult to be discreet when 11 large tour buses are parked around the corner from a hotel. Fans have a pretty good idea where to look for them, and they were rewarded with a quick glimpse of the band as they boarded their individual buses.
I noticed that I got a few "looks" from people wondering who I was, and why I was allowed to hop on the bus. On the 45-minute bus ride to the venue, Rashawn and I sat in the back of his bus and had an interesting talk about his role in the band, how it has developed into a leadership role, and what it's like to tour with DMB.
Once we arrive at the venue, Rashawn showed me around backstage, the band's rehearsal space, the band's gym trailer (which is a full-sized exercise room with weights, treadmills, and other equipment), and introduced me to most of the band members and crew.
They canceled their pre-concert rehearsal so we had plenty of time to talk, mingle with the crew, and eat. The band travels with its own cooks who do a terrific job. We had many, many choices each night - chicken enchiladas, pork tenderloin, salmon, tuna, clams, various types of salads, soups, and about ten different desserts. After supper about an hour before the show, Dave Matthews and Rashawn were discussing the set list for that evening's performance.
Apparently they hadn't performed one of the tunes in a while, so Rashawn made the rounds to the other guys to remind them of the song's form. Rashawn has what has been described as a photographic memory for music, and the band has come to rely on him for many of the musical decisions.
As the show began, I shot some quick photos of the band walking on stage, and then made my way from backstage to the photographers' pit in front of the stage. After the third song I returned backstage and watched the remainder of the concert. I was able to stand just off the stage about 20 feet from Rashawn, with a perfect view of the band and the 26,000 fans in attendance. Quite a different experience than performing a trumpet recital in Thompson Recital Hall at BSU.
The band gave me a headset so I could hear everything they could hear, including all the conversations between the band members. Listening to them interact on stage, it was readily apparent that they work hard but have a great time. They joke between tunes, sometimes talking about what just happened on stage or maybe even quipping about the antics of a fan in the audience.
During the first encore tune, Jeff Coffin (sax) was standing backstage chatting with me since he didn't play on the first half of the tune. During his break he took my camera on stage and shot some pictures for me. After a few minutes, he walked the camera back to me, went back on stage, casually picked up his sax, and started soloing.
After three encore tunes and a total of a three-hour intense, highly energetic show, the band and crew quickly packed up and everyone walked to the buses. Security doesn't allow any of the concert attendees to leave until the DMB buses have exited the parking lot.
We drove through a tunnel of fans that excitedly waved at the buses while they passed through the parking lot. Rashawn and Jeff always sit in the front of their bus and wave to the fans through the windows after each concert. When we arrived at the hotel, the band hosted a relatively small party in one of the hotel's banquet rooms. The crew, band members, and friends of the band were invited to attend. Despite the common stereotype of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the idea that rock stars party until the sun rises every morning, this party remained relaxed and casual.
The closest thing to anything "racy" was when a couple female fans brought up the topic of the book Fifty Shades of Gray with Stefan Lessard (the band's bass player). Stefan hadn't read the book, otherwise he may have been a little more suspicious of their motives.
Everyone mingled, had a couple drinks, and chatted with each other until the party gradually faded away at about 3 a.m. The late night about killed me the next morning, but I survived.
Overall, the atmosphere was extremely relaxed and friendly. The band and the entire crew were so friendly and accommodating to me. Rashawn took the time to introduce me to everyone. Carter Beauford (drummer) smiled as much backstage as he does on stage. Dave Matthews walked around, greeted everyone, chatted with crew members, and basically seemed to play host. And by the end of day one, I felt extremely privileged to be a small part of it all.