Last year, Matthews announced that after spending more than a dozen live albums' worth of years on the road, the DMB would be taking 2011 off. But it hasn't quite worked out that way: Starting Friday, Matthews will kick off the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, a three-day festival that makes the first of its four stops across the country at Bader Field in Atlantic City.
Besides Matthews' band, which will performing full-length headlining sets all three nights, more than three dozen other acts will play the festival. The event is expected to bring more than 30,000 concertgoers a day to the converted airport, which closed in 2006 after nearly a century in operation, and give the struggling economy of the former Playground of the World a much-needed jolt.
Three years ago, the Austin, Texas-based promoter C3 had hopes of mounting a major rock festival in the Philadelphia area - first in Fairmount Park, then in Vineland, N.J. Neither came to pass, thanks to logistical hurdles and a crashing global economy. But now, a rock fest of impressive size has landed within driving distance of Philadelphia after all.
The Caravan lineup isn't on the scale of, say, this month's behemoth Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. But on three stages, Caravan will present an impressive and varied lineup, with a bill that includes the Flaming Lips, Ray LaMontagne, David Gray, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, Dawes, Fitz and the Tantrums, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Lisa Hannigan, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and a significant Philadelphia contingent in the form of Dr. Dog, G. Love & Special Sauce, and Amos Lee.
"It's in between a Phish festival, where you only have Phish," says Matthews' manager, Coran Capshaw, "and a major festival like Bonnaroo." (Capshaw also manages Phish and is a major force in Bonnaroo.)
The festival, which carries a $195 ticket price for all three days, or $85 for individual days, stands to be the biggest rock event Atlantic City has seen since the Atlantic City Pop Festival in 1969. That brought the Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Joni Mitchell, among others, to the Atlantic City Racetrack a few weeks before Woodstock. (The Caravan will not have camping on-site; campgrounds and hotels are nearby.)
So instead of spending the entire summer kicking back on his farm in Charlottesville, Matthews will be doing a dozen shows as the Caravan moves from Atlantic City to Chicago to New York (where the headliners include the Roots) to George, Wash. Matthews also will play in August at Farm Aid, the annual charity concert he heads up with Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp.
"Technically, we could say that I'm not touring," says Matthews, 43, whose band's last release was 2009's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. "I won't be driving around in a bus." But despite his plans to lay low for the summer with his wife, 4-year-old son, and twin 9-year-old daughters, Matthews allowed himself to be coerced back onstage.
"A lot of the guys really wanted to play," says Matthews, who is a partner in the label ATO Records, whose roster includes My Morning Jacket and Drive-By Truckers. "And I'm not opposed to it. So we came up with this little compromise, the idea of having a bunch of bands and making it into an event. And then I thought, if we only do four shows, that's kind of lame. So we thought, 'Let's do something a little different for our audience, and make it at an odd destination that the traveling fans who are really serious into music might go.' "
The DMB Caravan makes its debut in a summer-concert industry market that, so far, seems to be bouncing back from a dismal 2010, says Pollstar's Gary Bongiovanni. That's especially true for festivals.
"It's been one of the best parts of the concert business so far this year," he says. "Bonnaroo sold out in advance. Coachella sold out in advance." (Coachella, held in the California desert every April, announced that it would expand to two weekends next year.) "And it's because they offer fans a great value for the amount of money."
Atlantic City made sense for the DMB Caravan for a number of reasons, says Capshaw, who says he became enamored with the New Jersey resort when Phish played Boardwalk Hall.
"Bader Field is right there on the bay, and there are a lot of hotels nearby, and it's conveniently located an hour away from Philly," says Capshaw, who's open to the idea of the festival becoming an annual event. "Plus, Atlantic City really embraced it. They sort of loved the idea of this happening in their town. They've been great working with us."
Caravan figures to be an even bigger deal than Phish at Boardwalk Hall, says Pinky Kravitz, the 84-year-old radio host and entertainment columnist for the Press of Atlantic City, who went to see Phish with his son. "I stayed for two hours. When I walked out, I was high."
With casino revenues down in the face of competition from Pennsylvania casinos and slots parlors, "it's one of the best things to happen to Atlantic City in a long time," says Kravitz. "We're looking for other types of entertainment to reestablish Atlantic City as a tourism destination. Now that the facility is available, if it draws the crowds, it can be a new era, music-wise, for Atlantic City."
The 142-acre Bader Field is adjacent to Bernie Robbins Sand Castle Stadium, where the minor-league Atlantic City Surf baseball team played until 2006. After the DMB signed the deal to come to Bader Field, the city embarked on a $300,000 makeover of the 5,500-person-capacity stadium. Miami rapper Rick Ross is scheduled to play there July 2.
At Caravan, Matthews says, "I like the idea of people looking at a menu of music and saying, 'I want to get there, and I want to get there.' He admits that "there's nothing environmentally sound about a big rock festival," but "maybe we can use it as a venue for talking about those things as well. There'll be a farmer's market, and organic food, and all those kind of things."
Of all the bands on the bill, Matthews says he's stoked about the Flaming Lips. "I'm the most excited and intimidated by them. Which is really cool. I like being afraid."
Matthews is a self-deprecating rock star: "I need more Gene Simmons in me." He's extremely confident about the musicians behind him, however, particularly drummer Carter Beauford.
"I'm not big on blowing my own horn," he says. "But like it or not, what I have behind me, with the energy of the way we play together, and with Carter on the drums, it's remarkable. It's a remarkable band.
"How do I put it? I would hate to follow my band."
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.