The dB’s are perhaps most famous for not being famous at all. That is, there is a prevailing feeling that the band should not have had to settle for being critically acclaimed cult favorites, unlike, say, early 1980s college-rock contemporaries (and future multi-millionaires) R.E.M.
Such anonymity was hardly evident, though, judging by the response that greeted one of the reunited original lineup’s first concerts in 17 years.
Back in the band’s old stomping grounds of Hoboken, N.J., (three-fourths of the band have lived there at one time or another), a tightly packed crowd dominated by 40-something admirers hung on every note and word. And by the end of the band’s momentum-gathering 85-minute set, the music had generated enough warmth to make even the uninitiated feel at home.
The foursome that produced the dBs’ acclaimed first two albums, Stands for deciBels (1981) and Repercussion (1982) — singer/guitarists Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder (augmented by keyboardist Andy Burton) — revisited favorites from those discs, as well as a several from the band’s post-Stamey era in the mid-‘80s and a handful of promising new selections, presumably from their forthcoming reunion album. Along the way, the dB’s sounded nothing like a group of musicians who, until this month, had not played live together since a one-off benefit show 17 years ago, years after Stamey had left the group.
Sure, they looked older and were a tad rough around the edges — Holsapple, for one, is now fully bald and boasting a gruffer voice — but from the pristine jangle of the set opener “Ask for Jill,” this felt like more than just a nostalgia trip through past glories. Highlighted by Stamey’s soft melodies, some more linear rock hooks sung (and penned) by Holsapple, and some tasteful yet occasionally biting guitar interplay between the two, the band sounded more vibrant and relevant than should be expected from an act that has been shelved for the better part of 20 years.
Rigby, who has kept sharp drumming for Steve Earle in recent years, did a commendable job of driving the songs along when called for — his measured thumping ushered in the night’s second number, the warmly received sing-along “Big Brown Eyes,” with an exclamation point — and pulling back appropriately on the lighter numbers.
Holder, on the other hand, stood a good distance from his band mates and stationed himself almost in the back right corner for much of the show. As a result, his playing was sometimes lost among it all, but then again, maybe that’s just one more credit to the disciplined musicianship on display.
The show’s latter half was particularly impressive, once the band grew comfortable enough to cut loose a bit more. Stamey and Holsapple dueted well on a slightly ragged take on “Dynamite,” perhaps making people momentarily forget the polished studio version’s unfortunately dated sound. Holsapple stole the show by leading the band through uplifting versions of full-on rockers “Love Is for Lovers” — a track from the post-Stamey years that found Stamey happily singing and strumming along just the same — and the well-chosen capper to the main set, “Neverland.”
During the encore, Holsapple unveiled a poignant number that could be titled “That Time Is Gone,” which struck an introspective chord — much like his eloquent “World to Cry” had earlier in the show – before things wrapped up with a run through the danceable grooves of “Amplifier,” which seemed a satisfying closer from the band’s catalog.
The promising new material suggested that even if the dB’s again fail to achieve mainstream success, they still just might improve upon their legacy, at least in the eyes of those who already recognize the merits of their inventive indie rock craftsmanship.
— By George Henn