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What’s the difference for the Dave Matthews Band between playing indoors and outdoors?

“If you have an open-air place or just sort of a covered stage and a vast audience where people can come up to the stage, that’s exciting,” said Matthews the other day before going onstage — outdoors— in Bilboa, Spain..

“I like that feel, because you have an energy, because whoever wants to hear you comes as close as they can. I also like that you get to play for an audience that isn’t necessarily there for you. Certainly, we’ve experienced that here in Europe.”

The big difference on this tour is that it’s DMB’s first without saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died in August of complications following an off-road ATV accident. “It’s a profound thing,” Matthews said of touring without Moore. “I miss my dear friend enormously. I have my memories of him. He’s essentially still part of the band because of the way that he left the band. That’s the way it is. He died, we didn’t die. To not be playing is the only thing that would have disrupted that natural quality of the band. So we carry on. He’s there in a different way.

“I could try and wax poetic about it in a way. But I don’t think he’d like it.”

Moore was Matthews’ most difficult friend. He had strong opinions and had a hard time loving himself, the singer said. “He was a tough guy and he could make his way to the bottom of a bottle pretty quickly,” Matthews told TV host Charlie Rose.

DMB had already started work on its next album when Moore’s accident occurred. In fact, since he was expected to recover, the group pressed on, playing some concerts with Jeff Coffin, a Bela Fleck sideman, sitting in. After Moore’s passing, the group decided to build its album around him — use his recorded saxophone parts (even from demos and rehearsals), write songs about him and honor him by titling the disc “Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King.”

The cover art — illustrations by Matthews himself — depicts Moore, whose nickname was Grux, as the King of a Mardi Gras parade. Matthews’ illustrations cover all four panels of the CD cover as well as 16 pages of the inside booklet containing the song lyrics.

“I put a lot of fun effort into it,” he said. “Someone sent me a photograph of the surviving members standing in front of a tree and said, ‘This is the cover,’ and I said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ That sort of inspired me to go in a different direction. And I think taking charge is one of the things where the band is right now, confidence in what we’re doing.”

It’s the kind of confidence that compels Matthews to call “Big Whiskey” the best album by DMB.

“We stopped being tentative,” he said. “I don’t think the band could survive another album of halfway.”

Some of that vibe can be attributed to the band itself, and some to new producer Rob Cavallo, known for his Grammy-winning work with Green Day and My Chemical Romance.

“Rob was an essential, essential part of the puzzle,” Matthews said. “His greatest contribution was guiding this chaos. I know we couldn’t have made this record without him, and I have no desire to make a record with anyone else right now.”

Interviewing Matthews, 42, is a lot like listening to a concert by the Dave Matthews Band. His answers are meaty, thoughtful and long-winded, traveling off in tangents and eventually returning to the main theme.

Take, for instance, when he was asked about that dorky Dave dance he does that drives fans wild.

“I don’t do it very well, but I enjoy it. I don’t think dancing should be left up to the people that do it professionally or the people that think they’re really good at it. I think people that feel things in their hearts should take it away from people who feel things with their brains. I like dancing because it makes me feel good, and I can make a fool of myself. I like to make a fool of myself because that’s part of what the music in this band is — being free, really free, away from the confines and conformities of fashion and hipness and coolness and celebrity and the in clique. That’s why I dance. It feels like freedom.”

The Dave Matthews Band was formed in 1991 in Charlottesville, Va., out of jams by singer/acoustic guitarist Matthews, drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist Moore. Teenage bassist Stefan Lessard was brought in to play on a demo tape, and violinist Boyd Tinsley was invited to play on one song. Both became permanent members.

Since 1993, DMB has released seven studio albums and at least 13 live albums. The group has scored four No. 1 albums and sold 33 million discs.

Matthews, who was born in South Africa and lived in England before settling in Virginia in 1986, may be the frontman and namesake, but he is not the leader. DMB is a democracy. Moore’s voice may still be heard. Matthews has said the saxophonist had a set of beliefs that he felt should always be applied.

“I think of those things — and maybe respect them — more now than when he was alive. Like, always be honest with your music. And keep it about the music and not about the trappings that we all get caught in.”

The passing of Moore apparently will not derail DMB’s momentum. Not only is the group the top dog of outdoors, but it’s also the most successful U.S. touring act of the ‘00s, having sold more than $450 million worth of tickets. (And, unlike with the Eagles, Neil Diamond or Cher, a DMB ticket rarely tops $75.)

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