Last August, just before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Dave Matthews opened a rally for then-Sen. Barack Obama at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The packed crowd was in a celebratory mood, and Tim Kaine, Democratic governor of Matthews’ home state, Virginia, promised the veteran rock star would “keep climbing with us!”
Matthews responded by playing “Bartender,” a ballad about thoughts of death.
He pulled it off, too, and not just because the audience sympathized with the grieving Matthews, whose longtime friend and band member, saxophonist LeRoi Moore, had died suddenly the previous week. Although he’d lost his voice that night, the 42-year-old front man for the Dave Matthews Band played a steady acoustic set, demonstrating one of his most underrated qualities — consistency.
Unlike contemporaries like Phish and the String Cheese Incident, the DMB rarely has a night when the musicians just aren’t into it and the jams don’t click. Matthews and his band have grown over the past 18 years into perhaps the most reliable live performers of their generation, grossing more than $41 million for each tour of the past five years, according to Pollstar.
“They routinely show up and deliver a great show,” says Josh Baron, editor in chief of Relix, the jam-band magazine, which put the DMB on the cover of the latest issue. “You don’t ever really hear about a bad Dave Matthews show. If anything, perhaps an off night consists of Matthews having too much to drink and he talks too much.”
The Matthews Band focused on its live show from the beginning, when the band formed in Charlottesville, Va., in 1991. Following big-brother contemporaries such as Phish and Blues Traveler, the band started out playing frat parties and bars. In addition to the band’s improvisational skills and college-campus appeal, Matthews’ sensitive-guy presence gave the operation a commercial advantage.
“Women were struck by Dave’s romantic lyrics, good looks and onstage charm, more than enough to keep them coming back for more,” Nevin Martell wrote in his biography, “Dave Matthews Band: Music for the People.” The formula peaked in 1994, when the band’s pop breakthrough “Under the Table and Dreaming” went multiplatinum and vaulted the band into arenas and amphitheaters.
Beyond “Under the Table and Dreaming,” though, the DMB’s organic, hard-to-control improvisations often have been difficult to capture on record. After Moore’s death from injuries suffered in an all-terrain vehicle accident, Matthews, drummer Carter Beauford, violinist Boyd Tinsley, bassist Stefan Lessard and new producer Rob Cavallo found themselves in the studio with nothing to do but fall back on endless improvisation.
“I went to Charlottesville and they started jamming on one song for 12 hours,” Cavallo, best known for his work with punk trio Green Day, told The Wall Street Journal. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ Their musicianship is so great, but this wasn’t helping us get new songs.” The solution: Limit the jams to 15 minutes apiece, then laboriously sift through the material afterward — leading to the new “Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King,” a big, sad, surprisingly hopeful rock album full of bleating saxophones.
The album feels like a departure, careening from such raucous celebrations as “Why I Am” to devastating ballads about loss like “Baby Blue.”
But it’s not especially abrupt for longtime Matthews fans. “Death has always been something that’s a huge topic of discussion in Matthews’ lyrics. He lost a father and a sister at an early age, and that clearly had a profound influence on him in terms of his desire to deal with death and talk about it,” says Martell. “But, obviously, death casts a pall on all the proceedings. I find it a little depressing — not in the sense of its lyrics or the fact that there are so many minor-chord songs, but just that you can tell something’s missing.”
‘DREAMING’ TO ‘WHISKEY’ AND THE SPACE BETWEEN
Five key albums in the life of the Dave Matthews Band:
“Under the Table and Dreaming” (1994) — Separating themselves from the pack of jam bands, from Big Head Todd and the Monsters to the Grateful Dead, who had traditionally sold out concerts everywhere but stalled on the pop charts, the Matthews Band turned out to be a master of catchy tunes and easygoing hooks — check out the smash “What Would You Say” and Boyd Tinsley’s opening violin on “Ants Marching.” They were unavoidable on rock radio for much of the ‘90s.
“Everyday” (2001) — Produced by Glen Ballard, the straightforward rock producer who’d helped turn Alanis Morissette into a megastar, “Everyday” is streamlined, heavy on electric guitars — and actually has a few good songs (notably “The Space Between”). But a wide range of DMB fans turned on it, complaining it neutered the improvisational feel that defined the band.
“Busted Stuff” (2002) — The back story to “Busted Stuff” is more interesting than the album itself. It seems the Matthews Band had recorded a series of jams with veteran producer Steve Lillywhite, known informally as “The Lillywhite Sessions,” then played tons of those songs on tour, leading to mass bootlegging. But the band opted to put out “Everyday,” instead. They attempted to make up for it by rerecording many of those songs here, mostly in shorter, tighter versions.
“Some Devil” (2003) — With the depressing “Gravedigger” as the centerpiece (in both electric and acoustic versions), Matthews temporarily leaves his band behind. Although it has several strong songs, the problem here is he needs to create drama with his voice rather than relying on Tinsley’s violin or Moore’s saxophone.
“Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King” (2009) — “Grux” was a nickname for LeRoi Moore, the band’s founding saxophonist, who died last year. And as Moore had begun the recording process before his death, his saxophone parts survive to enliven and haunt the album. It’s depressing in parts, particularly the devastating “Baby Blue,” but upbeat tracks like “Shake Me Like a Monkey” have an uplifting rock quality, giving the band a recorded energy it hasn’t had in years.