Updated: May 9, 2020
”Oh, in some ways it’s the same | But tonight, the crowd they came…”
Image from eventbrite.com
Upon making the decision to move from a suburb of Philadelphia to a more rural setting in the state of Maine, there were a number of things that I did not initially consider. Nearest grocery store, distance to the closest hospital...things that are essential to survival. One of those things that I overlooked, a necessity for happiness (at least for me) and therein a necessity for survival, was the music scene. Where was the nearest venue? How frequent are events? What kind of bands play there? Luckily, I had all of my questions answered on my first visit to the state, as I stayed in Portland and saw the band Lucius at the State Theatre. On a separate recon trip, I happened to drive down Congress Street and see “John Butler Trio” sprawled in all caps on the State Theatre marquee. I knew from that moment that music would not be a problem. Dispatch announced the Summer Stop series shortly after I made the move and I instantly bought tickets. They were the last show that I saw in my home state of New Jersey so it was all too fitting that they would be the first show that I would see at Portland’s iconic Thompson’s Point. I did not realize it until the day of the show, but the Thompson’s Point date was exactly one year to the day of the Stone Pony Summer Stage concert with which the boys helped me bid New Jersey a fond and nostalgic farewell. Eerie in the best possible way, I’ll chalk that one up to fate.
There is something special about being part of the audience at a Dispatch show. And that’s exactly what it is: you feel as though you are a part of something. No, you ARE a part of something. Something much larger than yourself, you send energy outward to mesh with that coming from those around you which in turn matches the energy resonating from the band. From the mouths and instruments on stage, into the microphones and through the speakers, out into the air and repeated in unison by thousands of other voices, in harmonious synergy the vibes build and boom out into the ether as both players in this equation, the band and the crowd, gain strength. As surely as you contribute to this atmosphere of musical oneness, it all comes back to you and you benefit from it. Having seen Dispatch three times prior to Thompson’s Point, I can say with 100% certainty that this show was no different. Sure, the setting has changed and the setlists have varied, but that intangible, inexplicable thing that makes a Dispatch show a transcendent experience, that thing remains constant across both time and space.
Only the Wild Ones
Here We Go
Beto (with In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins)
Curse and Crush
Walk With You
Came For The Fire
Bats in the Belfry
Skin the Rabbit
Wake Up (Rage Against the Machine cover)
Letter to Lady J
Leading off with the instant classic and friendship anthem “Only the Wild Ones”, Chad Urmston, Brad Corrigan, John “JR“ Reilly, Matt Embree and Mike Sawitzke set the stage for an incredible night of music sure to be heavy with nostalgia. Coming a long way since touring directly behind America, Location 12 where it was played during the acoustic set with a bare bones percussion set-up, it now features a full drum kit and then some as JR’s partial kit accented Brad’s lead drumming to add some extra punch. Keeping with the theme of longing for yester-year and the youthfulness, since-faded friendships, and memories associated with it, the boys burst into “So Good” off of Location 13 with a vocally-focused intro. All electric as opposed to the album version that features acoustic verses, this one ROCKED from start to finish. With a more rounded-out percussive profile and fully flourishing vocal harmonies present in every lyric, it is clear that the studio recordings reign the songs in from the wilderness, but that they act as a mere blueprint to how the band will ultimately make listeners feel the music. Keeping the rock-heavy energies and new music flowing, the opening riff of “Be Gone” blared through the conclusion of a drum jam that lay an audible landscape of a battlefield camp just prior to the start of conflict. Whereas the album version leaves this song open-ended with an outro that is a collection of reverberating fuzz-based guitar tones and backwards riffs, no musical stone was left unturned in this live rendition. Chad built the suspense with an ominous three note progression that erupted into a full-fledged melee of a jam, unleashing the fury symbolic of those oppressed prior to the aforementioned metaphoric struggle. In coming down from the ending jam of “Be Gone”, they immediately started building back up over Brad’s drumming that steadily increased in volume. After announcing the departure of guitar tech and Portland native Micah Davis, fondly wishing him well, Chad began an intro chant and the audience ecstatically chimed in before Brad could even begin his harmony. My thoughts were the song’s exact title: “Here. We. Go.” Throwing it back to the R&B-influenced funk rock days of 1997’s Bang Bang, Chad, Brad, and the boys commenced a glorious sing-along from which there was no return. It would prove to last for the remainder of the night.
Image courtesy of Nicole Garrison
In talking with some people before the show, many were hopeful that Dispatch would pull out all the stops and leave it all on the stage. Not that they don’t give every show the entirety of their focus and effort, but this was the last show of the tour and some people were anticipating a little extra whether it be a surprise cover, an unexpected throwback, or a special guest. The set would later bring all three of these little dreams into reality, but for me that “little extra” was the extended jams. Structured yet free, they displayed the band’s musicianship and how all of their individual styles have converged into one collective entity in the roughly three years that this line up has been touring together. In my opinion, the most surprising and dynamic of these jams came on “Windylike.” An empowering acoustic song on America, Location 12 that promotes feminism by espousing equal rights as a cause that everyone, not just women, can support, the live rendition brought a much needed sense of urgency to that message. When listening to the album version, I always envisioned movie credits rolling when the drums come in at the start of the second verse. However, the harmonies that carried just before and through the chorus were so captivating live that I was slapped upside the head with the steady, rocking rhythm when it fell into time. Similar to “Be Gone”, the album version leaves the chord progression somewhat unresolved as the track fades to silence. The song’s message would not be suppressed here, though, as a jam led by the interplay between Chad on a Gibson SG and Mike Sawitzke on spacey keys followed the last chorus. Just as the jam reached its peak with Chad laying into a wah pedal, the jam ceded to a glorious three-part harmony as Chad, Brad, and JR sang the line “Like a bird caught in a curtain” before diving head first back into the rocking instrumental and ending with one powerful guitar strum.
After shuffling instruments, as was common in Dispatch’s days as a trio, Brad and Matt Embree ushered in the uptempo reggae-rocker “Beto” with a slow, hazy, ambient intro on dual electric guitars. Embree and JR each made their respective presence known here as Embree tastefully riffed away over Brad’s rhythm guitar throughout the verses and JR energetically kept time behind the kit. Initially mistaken for offbeat drumming over the arpeggiated chords played by Braddigan and Embree, JR switched time signatures in an instant as Brad broke into a portion of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Perfectly suited for Brad’s voice, the quintessential Dispatch spin was applied as JR returned to a reggae rhythm after playing the universally-known fill that ushers in the last chorus of Collins’ 1981 hit (cover, check). Aside from the musical compatibility of the choice of cover, it fit cohesively with the narrative in “Beto” as a small town braces for a showdown between a drug lord and the authorities or possibly a rival cartel. Again switching time signatures on a dime, the story in “Beto” was told to its completion, incorporating another extended jam that featured Embree with a mind-blowing solo. “Bang Bang” also featured Embree in grand fashion. Settling into a deep groove in the verses that saw Chad trade lyrics with the crowd as Brad harmonized from behind the kit, Embree took the spotlight after the call and response that followed the song’s bridge. Starting with complete stops in percussion, it felt as if the rest of the band was respectfully allowing him to set his space for the virtuosity that was to take place. What then transpired was easily the most dynamic solo of the night, incorporating high bends and blisteringly fast hammer-ons that seemed to border on metal techniques. With such an impressively powerful and wide-ranging display, Embree proved himself to be a true guitar maestro and brought the song to a triumphant close with a bang...bang (I apologize for the pun, but I could not resist).
Coming back down from the high of Embree’s mastery of the guitar, Chad took a somber moment to dedicate the next song to two of his cousins that recently passed away. A fitting form of remembrance, “Curse and Crush” echoed out into the ether to coalesce with their spirits, riding on the back of Sawitzke’s ethereal, reverb-soaked slide guitar. Brad then kept those vibes of commemoration flowing as he took center stage for the acoustic throwback “Walk With You.” Contending with technical difficulties stemming from the quarter-inch jack on his guitar, the band and crew deserve massive props for holding this one together. It had every opportunity to fall apart as Brad continued to sing while the guitar tech taped the cord connection on his guitar. However, the band’s musicianship and professionalism again shined through as Embree played a sweetly subdued riff over JR’s light rhythmic percussion and Chad grabbed a second guitar from another tech on the side of the stage to give Brad to finish the song. Collected and patient throughout the ordeal, the moment was saved by the energy that bound everyone involved together as a family (throwback, check).
Image courtesy of Eric Dieterich
Returning again to the gritty and pointed energy characteristic of their early shows, the churning punk-funk riff of “Time Served” burst through the dark ambience created by Chad and Sawitzke on guitar while the opening line was sung in slow, ominous harmony symbolic of a prison riot quietly simmering before breaking out as depicted in the lyrics. Again battling technical difficulties with Chad’s guitar, Sawitzke took over the lead riff while Embree filled the coinciding void in sonic space. Making an impactful return, Chad’s volume problem was solved just in time for a dual jam with Sawitzke that broke into a chugging, old school hard rock/metal riff to end the song. Applying that same energy to “Came For The Fire”, it was again made clear that the album versions of most of their songs are but a template for how they will be performed. Trading out the acoustic guitars during the verses, the fervor of the all-electric sound showcased a different side of the desperation present at the heart of the lyrics. Accompanying some of the most personal and poignant chorus lyrics of their catalog were the most dialed in harmonies of the set, with Brad’s low harmony being most prominent in laying a sturdy foundation for Chad’s main melody and JR’s high accent harmony. Pivoting back from brand new music to a fan favorite classic, “Bats in the Belfry” featured Sawitzke on trumpet as Chad and Brad temporarily returned to the ska-reggae-rock sound of days gone by. Incorporating a massive audience sing along with a call and response during the thick reggae breakdown, it felt as though every piece of the band and audience sank perfectly into their respective places in the jam. Building from Braddigan’s vocal runs during the call and response and an ascending guitar riff that steadily gained in volume, a grungey jam ushered in another final iteration of the chorus with the help of Sawitzke’s trumpet.
Cryptically critical of society at large, “Bats” was the perfect lead-in to “Skin the Rabbit” with a similarly hard-hitting main guitar part but more direct lyrics. With an intro curated by Chad and Sawitzke to build suspense and well up with anger, the ascending-then-descending riff was released to show that the band still brought an edge to the delivery of their more political songs. Perfectly mirroring the lyrics of the bridge (“Is there anyone else...who can read my mind ‘cuz it’s not longer mine”), Sawitzke’s ambient tones matched the dazed headspace of someone deeply questioning the workings of society around them. Embree’s bass and the vocal urgency on the part of Chad and Brad turned that confusion to pure disdain, coinciding with the disillusionment in the latter part of the lyrics. Whereas the message or intensity could have been muddled in the drum programming of the album version, it could not be misconstrued in this performance as it blared forth with purpose. Gesturing a call to action, Chad raised his arm with guitar in hand before delving back into the last urgent chorus and concluding the song with an effects-laden outro that served as the audible representation of insanity.
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In what was one of the coolest concert moments that I’ve been a part of, Chad announced that he and the rest of the band had always wanted to surf Portland. Moments later, he, Brad, and JR were floating atop the crowd on their way to a small stage next to the sound tent near the blanket seating area. Reuniting with Sawitzke and Embree who did the crowd surfing equivalent of swimming (i.e. walking), they played a short acoustic set consisting of classics “Flying Horses” and “Elias” off of their 1996 debut Silent Steeples. With nostalgia hanging in the humid summer night air, I was immediately transported back to the first time I heard these songs as well as to when I first saw them performed live. I was introduced to Dispatch by my brother about halfway through high school. Their music was a big part of my senior year and helped carry me through college to when I first saw them play these songs at Madison Square Garden for Dispatch: Hunger. All of the friends, all of the memories, all of the feelings that I associate with their music palpably rang out before my eyes and ears through the chords and lyrics. For as much as any audience identifies with Dispatch, having a shared history with their music, it was a truly beautiful moment for them to throw it back to the songs that started it all and be amongst the crowd to do so.
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Returning to the main stage for an epic finale, Dispatch invited the opening act Moon Taxi to play alongside them. Drastically different from the dancey pop-rock style with which they started the night in their opening set, the lead singer/lead guitarist and rhythm guitarist took their places at center stage while the bassist and drummer added percussion alongside JR. As Chad and Brad set their instruments aside, I found it odd that they would invite another band out to play their music. However, Chad succinctly announced, “This song is a cover”, and the guest guitarists on stage joined Sawitzke in the hard chugging strums and siren-like bends that start Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up”. Performing Zack de la Rocha’s vocals in unison, Chad and Brad were backed by the other members of Dispatch and the entirety of Moon Taxi, playing with the ultimate pissed-off, revolution-now energy of Rage coursing through their veins. Aided by some gravelly vocal effects, Brad even put forth a respectable effort in pulling off de la Rocha’s signature scream. Although the songs on Location 12 and 13 are far lighter in instrumentation and more subtle in lyricism, the fact that a Rage cover made it into the set tells me that the fire is still burning at the heart of their music, only channeled differently as though tailored specifically for the live setting.
Settling back into familiar territory with Moon Taxi still on the stage, Dispatch subdued the fury but kept the energy high for “Letter to Lady J”. Highlighting vocal harmonies like most of the set, JR remained behind the kit while Braddigan stayed at the front of the stage, armed with a microphone and snare with two drumsticks to add some punch to the mobilizing call in the slide interlude. With the vibes riding high after the harsh jumpstart of “Wake Up” and the more fast-paced, upbeat “Lady J”, the crowd’s energy perfectly met that of the band as Moon Taxi left the stage for the last song of the night: “The General”. Deriving from 1997’s Bang Bang, it is easily the most well-known song in Dispatch’s catalog. Showing gratitude to the fans that have stayed with them for all this time, Chad deferred the chorus to the crowd, opting to hear and absorb the lyrics and the associated energies rising forth as they were sung back to him. I will most likely never know what it is like to have my own words repeated back to me by thousands of people that support me, but the look of genuine appreciation on Chad’s face told me all that I need to know.
“Oh, in some ways it’s the same, but tonight the crowd they came.” They came in force, ready to immerse themselves in an experience that runs deeper than soundwaves through the air but is just as universal. They came to be one cohesive being, bound by a common love of this band and their music. They came to remember friends and memories; they came to make new ones. They came to have hope and lend their voices to the forces of change. The times and the settings have changed, but the songs and their messages remain the same.
Image courtesy of Samantha Wondoloski