The big events come along once every three or four years. Take the Olympics or the World Cup -– major happenings known as much for their rarity as for their unique ability to pull together a community of people. And while nobody would think of comparing a Dispatch concert to these global events, for their devoted fans the band’s 2011 concert tour, the first in a decade, is very big news indeed.
For those not aware of what happens when the members of Dispatch – Brad Corrigan, Pete Heimbold and Chad Stokes -– get together to play, take a look at what happened during their last hometown appearance, 2004’s concert at Boston Hatch Shell. “The Last Dispatch” drew an audience in excess of 110,000 people from 25 countries – from as far away as Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The event which was expected to draw about 20,000, became the largest independent music event in history and was documented in a feature film The Last Dispatch.
Or consider, for example, the band’s 2007 appearance at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Inspired to play together again to raise money for charities in Zimbabwe, the band quickly sold out the first night in just minutes, making Dispatch the first independent band ever to sell out the storied venue. “Dispatch: Zimbabwe” went on to sell out three consecutive nights at the Garden, moving more than 60,000 tickets in all. It was their first time playing together onstage in more than three years.
“It just blows our minds,” says Heimbold. “It’s amazing to us that people continue to spread the music years after we stopped touring, and we’re very grateful that our fans are so passionate.”
Founded in 1995 at Middlebury College in Vermont, Dispatch built their incredible following through a grass-roots DIY ethic that wholly ignored the usual routes to rock stardom: major labels, radio airplay, MTV and mainstream media coverage.
As the band’s fan base grew, they began releasing albums on their own Bomber Records label. Starting with Silent Steeples (’96), followed by Bang Bang (’98), Four-Day Trials (’99) and Who Are We Living For? (’00), the four albums, which feature the band’s eclectic musical style built around their patented harmonies, have sold a total of more than 600,000 copies in all.
Along the way the band got some help from an unexpected source. The same file sharing services like Napster and Limewire that were beginning to erode sales at the major labels were a boon for Dispatch. “We spent most of our time touring around the Northeast,” says Heimbold. “But once we got out to California, we were totally surprised to see that the audience already knew all the words to our songs.”
But just as the band was set to explode in a major way, Chad, Pete and Brad decided that it was time to walk away, and Dispatch dissolved into its disparate parts, leaving their homegrown fan base to wonder what happened.
“It was just an incredible burnout,” says Corrigan, who is still based in Denver. “We had no real friendships outside of each other and we wanted to have lives outside of the band and be part of our communities again.”
The band members went their separate ways, with the Denver-based Corrigan working on his band Braddigan, Heimbold working as an acoustic singer-songwriter under the name Pete Francis, and Stokes, living in Boston and touring and recording with his band State Radio.
In the end, it wasn’t the fame, the money or any of the other trappings of rock stardom that got Dispatch to pick up their instruments again. It was a sincere desire to help the people of Zimbabwe. As the New York Times said of the 2007 benefit concerts: “... So many concert fund-raisers seem vague or half-baked, it was gratifying to see that the band members really knew and cared about the cause.”
“We’ve been given a lot of volume by our fans,” says Corrigan about Dispatch’s commitment to social causes. “If the three of us want to get together and say something, it’s pretty remarkable how far it can travel.”
Social responsibility has always been a major component of the Dispatch culture and this summer’s tour is no exception. This summer the band will roll out their Amplifying Education campaign, which will focus on educational issues here in the United States. Not only will fifty cents from each ticket sold go to benefit education in each local market, but the band is planning additional programs to spotlight education in every market they visit.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking how little attention we give our kids in terms of their education, as opposed to how much we give to entertainers and athletes every day,” says Corrigan. “The scales are just not right. We’re setting our children up to fail if we keep cutting back on their opportunities to learn and be exposed to the arts and music.”
The band is excited about hitting the road again and is even planning on recording new material. “We want to hang together as friends again,” says Stokes. “We’re all older and appreciate what each of us brings to the table as individuals.”
“We miss making those harmonies,” adds Corrigan.
“The band has really always been about sharing,” says Heimbold. “It’s inherent in our name, about getting the word out, spreading the message and energy to our community. The best thing anybody can say to me is when a fan says our band made him want to pick up a guitar and form a group. That means more than any gold record.”
Dispatch will continue to do things their way, and that’s just fine with their fervent following.
“Our fans have stuck with us so far,” acknowledges Corrigan. “And we feel a desire to give them some new music. They’ve given us life, and we want to give them some life back. We just want to be as authentic as possible. We’re just so revved and fired-up to see what it will be like to stand together onstage again.”
Dispatch -- and the rest of us -- are about to find out.