August 22, 2007

Dispatch ZimbabWOW in MSG

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When popular college jam-band Dispatch parted ways in 2004, they left behind a legacy of being all about the music. Although Chad Urmston, Pete Heimbold and Brad Corrigan had many musical and personal differences which drew the band apart, they always agreed on, in their own words, “keeping [Dispatch] comfortably outside the chintzy glare of pop music’s spotlight.” Despite never signing with a major record label or getting airplay on mainstream radio, the band’s free “farewell” concert at the Hatch Shell in Boston three years ago drew over 110,000 fans from 25 countries. The Last Dispatch, the most widely attended independent music event on record, became the stuff of legend. Stories of the concert drew a new generation of fans, who memorized the words to every song as they desperately dreamed of getting the chance to see the band live themselves.
Three years later, those dreams came true. On July 14, the band’s website announced Dispatch would play a reunion concert at Madison Square Garden. This concert, however, would not merely be all about the music, all about Dispatch. Instead, the event would be about harnessing the power of the band’s music to help a cause far greater than three college friends from Middlebury College in Vermont. All proceeds gained from ticket sales “[would] go directly to charities that are fighting disease, famine and social injustice in Zimbabwe.” These issues had been on the band’s radar for years, ever since Urmston worked in Zimbabwe during his twenties and witnessed the need for change firsthand. His experiences inspired one of Dispatch’s most popular songs, Elias, and even when the band split up, Chad, Pete, and Brad all continued to work towards raising money and awareness for the people of Zimbabwe. However, as economic conditions continued to worsen in Zimbabwe, with unemployment over 85 percent, poverty over 90 percent and the highest rate of inflation in the world, the boys of Dispatch realized they could help more together than they ever could alone. Dispatch: Zimbabwe was born.
News of the concert spread quickly from fan to fan. Acquiring tickets became a matter of utmost importance. One Cornell student, aware that he would be out of the country at the time of the presale, arranged for no less than three friends to try to purchase him tickets. Another Cornell freshman counted down the seconds until the presale began on Jan. 10 with both her laptop and her desktop computer in front of her, eager to get the best seats possible. That July 14 show sold out in less than 30 minutes. Two additional shows in Madison Square Garden were added for the 13th and the 15th, as well as a more intimate show in New York’s Webster Hall. These additional shows sold out in a matter of minutes as well.
While fans were largely focused on getting to see the band play together again, Dispatch did their best to shift the focus away from themselves and towards the issues in Zimbabwe. Before the shows began, sobering statistics about the continuing problems in Zimbabwe reeled across video screens in between messages asking fans to consider donating via text message. Dispatch: Zimbabwe opened, not with the band itself, but with the African Children’s Choir dancing and singing. A typical opening band they were not, but this was clearly not an ordinary concert. Blended into the songs were a series of videos shot in Zimbabwe, highlighting the people the band had met there as well as the country’s ongoing issues. During the July 14 concert, Corrigan made clear Dispatch’s feelings regarding the evening, telling fans that “while you’re here to listen to our music, please listen to the message in our film as well… We want you to leave with both. It’s very important to us tonight that this is more than a rock show.”
While Dispatch: Zimbabwe was indeed more than a rock show, the music was nevertheless the heart of each evening. From the first strains of “Here We Go,” the opening number all three nights, fans cheered every song and sung out every word along with the band. Dispatch played for over three hours, jamming though 25 songs which spanned the course of their career as a band. Highlights included the band’s three-song acoustic set on top of their old tour van, which was parked in the center of the concert floor, and the exuberant African Children’s Choir’s reappearances during “Out Loud” and “Carry You,” which added new levels of joy to those fan favorites. The concerts were elastic, freeing, a communal exaltation shared between the band and its sold-out audiences. The general feeling seemed to be that somehow, by just being there with Dispatch, each audience member was doing a little something to save the world. It is impossible to say how many fans left the concert inspired to take individual action against injustice and poverty. But it is certain that everyone left the biggest concert event of summer 2007 at least a little more aware — aware of the issues faced by those far less privileged than those attending Dispatch: Zimbabwe, aware of the power of music, and aware of the joy that can come from being part of something bigger than oneself.