It would be easy for Dave Matthews to just rest on his laurels. After the breakthrough success of his first two major label CDs 'Under the Table and Dreaming' and 'Crash' turned him into a Grammy-winning superstar, four more studio albums with his self-titled band followed, each a multi-platinum success. The group also became a relentless touring attraction, filling arenas around the world and their legendary jams, turning concerts into something more akin to a religious experience for the converted. It's probably fair to say that Matthews could easily never release another album again, and just coast along forever and make a mint by playing the old jukebox favorites (well, at least until senility sets in).
So one must give props to the guy for even bothering with an event like 'Live at Radio City.' Taking a break from his main gig, Matthews hooked up once again with his lifelong friend (and master guitarist) Tim Reynolds for a series of sporadic impromptu acoustic gigs. Of course, 'Live at Radio City' is no coffeehouse gig -- what other A-list musician could fill a venue this huge bypassing most of his biggest hits, and playing with some old bloke few in the mainstream have heard about?
It speaks to the impeccable musicianship of both Matthews and Reynolds, as well as the former's irascible on-stage banter, that they manage to captivate for nearly two-and-a-half-hours without barely standing up. Though I love a big, theatrical rock concert as much as the next fan, there's something perhaps even more inspiring in seeing the music itself take centerstage for once. Despite the lack of many of the standards fans have come to expect from a traditional Dave Matthews Band show (the pair does offer stripped-down takes on some of the staples, like "Crash Into Me" and "Crush"), and sometimes long, rambling monologues by the singer that often threaten to go nowhere, I found it utterly compelling. As only a casual fan, I have to admit that I didn't recognize half the setlist, yet I never felt compelled to skip a single track.
The sheer visual simplicity of 'Live at Radio City' is also refreshing. I've reviewed many live releases over the years, and often an effort is made to make the performance seem more "exciting" than it is by piling on the endless visual gimmicks and flashy editing. 'Live at Radio City' is the complete antithesis of this approach -- it's just two guys sitting on a stage, playing guitar, and cracking wise banter with the audience. In fact, this may be the most sparsely presented concert discs I've ever seen, with long, languid camera moves and not a single jump-cut throughout the entire show. The purity of the visual approach perfectly compliments the natural, drifting beauty of the music. Simply put, 'Live at Radio City' is an excellent document of an excellent concert.
The 26-strong tracklist is as follows: 01. Bartender / 02. When the World Ends / 03. Stay or Leave / 04. Save Me / 05. Crush / 06. So Damn Lucky / 07. Gravedigger / 08. The maker / 09. Old Dirt Hill / 10. Eh Hee / 11. Betrayal / 12. Out of My Hands / 13. Still Water / 14. Don't Drink the Water / 15. Oh / 16. Cornbread / 17. Crash Into Me / 18. Down by the River / 19. You Are My Sanity / 20. Sister / 21. Lie in Our Graves / 22. Some Devil / 23. Grade is Gone / 24. Dancing Nancies / 25. #41 / 26. Two Step
Sony BMG has certainly rolled out the red carpet for 'Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City,' giving the release the two-disc treatment. The entire 168-minute show is included on the first disc, which is BD-50 dual-layer, while the supplements get a second platter all their own. The generous treatment really pays off, as this 1080p/VC-1 encode looks terrific.
'Live at Radio City' was quite an elaborately-filmed event, captured with nine high-def cameras. It's top tier when it comes to shot-on-HD source material, with fantastic clarity and detail to the image. From close-ups to wide shots, the image is always razor sharp, and depth is palpable. Color reproduction is perfect, with the vibrant but restrained lighting washing the stage in warm oranges and reds, and more striking purples and blues. Hues never falter, with no noise or other impurities. Blacks and contrast are also spot-on -- the presentation looks slick and glossy but still natural, while shadow delineation is top drawer. There are also no compression artifacts to speak of. Dave Matthews fans rejoice -- this is a first-class, five-star transfer.
As great as the video is, the audio is perhaps even more impressive. Sony BMG offers an uncompressed PCM 2.0 Stereo mix (48kHz/24-bit), and -- in a first for the music label -- a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track at a hefty 96kHz/24-bit. As terrific as the PCM track is, I have to give the TrueHD mix the nod -- simply put, it's pitch perfect. (Note there is also a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix at a lowly 640kbps, but why would you want to listen to that?)
What dazzles the most is the transparent clarity of the presentation. The amazing, diverse sounds Dave Matthews and particularly Tim Reynolds are able to create with just a pair of acoustic guitars (and a few foot pedal-fueled effects) are as breathtaking as the sense of realism and purity to the TrueHD track. It truly feels as if sounds are simply hanging in the air, floating dreamlike, rather than emanating from a set of speakers. I couldn't even pinpoint their location in the soundfield, so transparent is the effect of one expansive wall of sound from the front stage, just as it would be if you were at the show yourself. Dynamics are terrific, too -- from the ultra-tight low tones with the warm, spacious highs, this is as good as it gets. The concert is also expertly balanced, with Matthews' vocals crystal clear and never fighting for dominance with the instrumentation or the crowd.
In comparing the discs two showcase tracks, in terms of envelopment there's surprisingly little perceivable difference between the PCM 2.0 Stereo and the TrueHD 5.1 Surround tracks. Perhaps its because the crowd is so subdued during this quiet show that the mix is almost entirely front and center. Having said that, I would still choose the TrueHD track, because its higher bitrate pays noticeable dividends in sounds quality. To be sure, neither track is a slouch, but the TrueHD is without a doubt the best audio presentation I've yet heard on a next-gen release. I mean it -- it's that good.
The second, BD-25 disc in the set is reserved solely for the extra features, of which there are only two, both presented in 1080p/VC-1 video.
First up is a generous 46 minute documentary entitled "So Damn Lucky." Part in-depth interview, part day-in-the-life video diary, part profile of the fans (some so dedicated they drove thousands of miles to follow their heroes), this is far superior to most fluff pieces usually found on concert discs. Yes, the fans are typically fawning (to the point where a couple of segments verge on Spinal Tap-esque hilarity), but Matthews and Reynolds are so talented, and charmingly idiosyncratic, that for once all the praise seems justified. This is a must-watch for fans, but even for a more casual admirer like myself, I found it well worth the investment.
The only other extra is a 4-minute animated photo montage, that features mostly B&W pics of the show, nicely framed and underscored by the song "Grace is Gone."
'Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Live at Radio City' is an excellent record of a one-of-a-kind show. Visually sparse but musically brilliant, the concert itself manages to be captivating even for non die-hard fans. This Blu-ray release from Sony BMG is also fantastic. The video and audio are both top-tier five-star presentations, and though the slim number of supplements drags down the overall grade, we do get a substantial documentary thrown in on a second disc. If you're at all a Matthews and/or Reynolds fan -- or if you just want a great music demo disc to show off your home theater -- this one's a must-buy.