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Friday, February 29, 2008

DISPATCH: ZIMBABWE (Live at Madison Square Garden) -- DVD review by porfle

Watching a concert DVD for a group you've never even heard of can be a daunting prospect. If you don't get into their music right away, then listening to two hours of it is pretty much the exact opposite of fun, especially if it's one of those preachy benefit concerts that gets bogged down by its own solemnity and self-importance. Which is why I was so relieved to discover that DISPATCH: ZIMBABWE, a charity event that sold out Madison Square Garden three nights in a row back in July '07, is a joyous, feelgood rock concert on its own terms. I may have never heard of Dispatch, but it didn't take long for me to start thinking, "Damn, these guys are good!"

I didn't feel quite so out of it after one of the brief documentary segments showed people on the street being asked the question "Have you ever heard of a band called Dispatch?" and everyone said "No." But they have amassed an army of rabid fans through word-of-mouth, touring, and file-sharing, selling over 600,000 copies of their independently-released albums until their farewell performance in 2004 drew more than 110,000 fans from 25 countries. This reunion at Madison Square Garden made them the only independent band ever to sell out that venue.

The power trio hits the ground running with "Here We Go", which introduces us to band members Chad Stokes, Pete Francis, and Brad "Braddigan" Corrigan. The intial configuration consists of Stokes on lead guitar, Francis on bass, and Braddigan on drums, but that doesn't last long. Braddigan often leaves the drumming to guest player Paul Stivitts and straps on a guitar himself, while Stokes and Francis trade lead and bass duties with equal skill. Lead vocals are similarly taken in turn.

These chunky, funky songs are a robust mix of various styles including classic rock, acid rock, grunge, reggae, Latin rhythms, and folk, along with several African-tinged numbers. A hot horn section provides backup, and the group is joined onstage for three songs by the African Children's Choir. You can look forward to something new with each song--at one point they even wheel out their famous tour van, "Wimpy", and perform a couple of high-energy acoustic songs ("Steeples", "Questioned Apocalypse") while sitting on top of it.

One thing's for sure, these guys don't come off like rock stars. During another documentary segment, some local, seen-it-all union stagehands have nothing but good things to say about them. "These guys come in without a record deal and blow out Madison Square Garden 360 for three nights--I've been doing this for a long time and I've never seen anything like it" enthuses one of them, while another adds, "The whole band are great guys, I wish they were stayin' here for a coupla months."

They look and act like the garage band next door, and when they run out amongst their frenzied fans during the furious "Cut It Ya Match It" these three unassuming guys with two cordless microphones and one acoustic guitar manage to enthrall the entire crowd with sheer talent, charisma, and a boundless sense of fun. By the time the Zimbabwean kids return to the stage along with African percussionists Bongo Love for the final three songs, "Elias", "Outloud", and "General", the concert has become an exhilarating, almost blissful communal experience that I couldn't help getting caught up in.

Director Danny Clinch and co-director/editor Pablo Casaverde captured the event beautifully and this 19-song set looks and sounds great on DVD. Bonus features include four extra songs, outtakes, interviews, and a sharply-produced 30-minute documentary about Zimbabwe, "Tree With No Name", which tells us everything we need to know about why Dispatch put this event together in the first place. Also included is a music CD containing ten songs from the concert, plus an access number that allows you to go online and download a bunch of their songs.

I wasn't a Dispatch fan before, but I am now. These guys are just plain fun to watch, and DISPATCH: ZIMBABWE makes me wonder why more people haven't heard of them. They definitely put a smile on my face.


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