Et Tu, Dave Matthews?

Is Seattle’s jam-band jester gunning for Bumbershoot?

By Matthew Halverson August 19, 2011 Published in the September 2011 issue of Seattle Met

OH, THAT SUCKS. Those three words bleated in April Morgan’s head like an off-key saxophone blast when she opened an email titled “A Message to Our Fans.” “We wanted to let everyone know that after twenty years of consecutive touring, Dave Matthews Band will be taking 2011 off,” read the missive to faithful followers in May 2010. Morgan, a 31-year-old DMB devotee in Federal Way, has followed the Wallingford resident and his band to 31 shows since 1997, and the idea of a summer without 10-minute violin solos rocked her world. “Half of me was like, ‘I get to save some money next year,’” she says. “But the other half was like, ‘What am I going to do? What do you mean there’s going to be no Dave?’”

Jon Stone had a slightly different take on the announcement. Relief would be one way to describe it. Unbridled joy would be another. Stone is the executive director of Bumbershoot, the Labor Day weekend music festival that’s camped out at Seattle Center since 1971, and for six of the last seven years he watched Matthews and company siphon off a sizable chunk of his audience. In case you’ve missed the annual caravan of VW buses trailing clouds of patchouli-scented funk east on I-90, the relentlessly touring rockers have had a three-day, unofficial standing gig at the Gorge Amphitheatre over the holiday weekend for the better part of the last decade. (Morgan has seen all 12 shows since 2007.) And all told, the band has played the cliffside shed along the Columbia River 36 times in the last 15 years.

During that same time, Bumbershoot has been shooting increasingly more blanks. Attendance has dropped from a high of 50,000 per day to as low as half that, while the cost of booking big-name talent has risen exponentially. (REM headlined one night in 1999 for $40,000. The Black Eyed Peas wanted a million bones to play the 2011 fest.) “It’s long struck us as ironic that one of Seattle’s hometown heroes is perpetually in Grant County during the festival,” Stone says. So when he learned that the annual Gorge bacchanal was off, he dreamed the impossible dream of convincing Matthews to suspend his hiatus and jet out to Queen Anne for the weekend. If anyone could build Bumbershoot buzz, it was the pied piper of the bong-ripping set: “It would have been a beautiful thing to bring his energy into the mix, if only for a year.”

Stone’s crew sent out feelers to the Matthews camp last fall and even allowed themselves a cup of cautious optimism when they weren’t immediately shot down. But then the correspondence petered out and rumors started to bubble up that the band was brewing something big for 2011 after all. Then press releases went out earlier this year announcing four three-night events at unnamed venues across the country—one in June; one in July; one in August; and, yep, one in September. And sure enough by the end of April, what had long been a foregone conclusion for fans and bookers alike was official: DMB would once again play at the Gorge over Labor Day weekend. But in an exceptionally cruel twist, they planned to host their very own mini fest, the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, with 22 other noodle-rock groups.

Even if it wasn’t an intentional slight, at the very least the band’s decision to go head-to-head with Bumbershoot sure smacks of a lack of civic awareness. (A DMB rep sidestepped the issue and noted the band’s history at the Gorge.) But Stone isn’t bitter about having to compete with another festival while his own is struggling. He says he’s a realist. “This entire town—at least in terms of the music business—used to shut down and lock their doors during the week of Bumbershoot because they didn’t want to try to compete, but that’s not true anymore,” he says. “Bumbershoot doesn’t own Labor Day weekend.”

Devoted Hardcore Davehead Morgan doesn’t care about the scuttlebutt surrounding the move. She’s just jazzed that the show will go on. See, this is the second time something almost got between her and Dave, and the first ended in a divorce. “There are people who get the Dave experience, and there are people who don’t,” Morgan says with a laugh. “My ex-husband was someone who didn’t.”

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