Kudos to whoever signed Dave Matthews Band back in the day. Who’d have thought that a band consisting of a South African, three black Americans-including a violinist and a sax player — and a white teenage bass prodigy would have turned into one of the biggest selling bands of the past decade and a half? Who’d have thought that they’d inherit the Grateful Dead’s mantle of hardest working (or at least hardest touring) band in show business? Who’d have thought that their masterful stew of genres-swiping equally from folk, jazz, blues, country rock and funk, would have resulted in hit singles and Platinum album sales? Who’d have thought that 12 years after their commercial breakthrough, Dave Matthews Band would have finally gotten around to celebrating with a “Best Of” album?
Granted, The Best of What’s Around, Vol. 1 isn’t your typical best-of album. While Dave Matthews Band’s biggest hits are included (well, most of ’em, anyway), not only did the band’s fans get to pick the songs that made the cut, but they also got to pick some of their favorite live performances for the tracks that make up the second disc of this double-CD set. If you’re one of the folks out there who has yet to see Dave Matthews Band live, pick this up for conclusive proof that these guys are as strong (if not stronger) on stage than they are on record.
Disc one of this set charts their evolution chronologically. While the band’s chops were always evident, Matthews was still working on his lyrics. There’s a clear difference between 1995’s funky, playful “What Would You Say” and the more linear, dewy-eyed rock ballad “The Space Between”. Both are great songs, but it’s a lot easier to figure out what the hell Dave is talking about. Although there are a few notable omissions (“So Much to Say”, “I Did It” and the band’s signature song “Tripping Billies”, to name a few), no sane person is going to quibble with the track listing here. From the warm, cheery “The Best of What’s Around” to the smoky, jazz-based “Crush” to the haunting “Hunger for the Great Light”, there’s not a bad song in the bunch, although more than a few Dave fans are embarrassed by the sensual (albeit slightly goofy) ballad “Crash into Me”. No, “hike up your skirt a little more and show the world to me” isn’t exactly Bob Dylan, but it fits within the framework of the song.
The studio recordings are great, but when performed live, the band seems to go from solidly workmanlike to genius. While their tendency to go into long, extended jams is well-document, their live performances have an electricity (even in recorded versions) that far surpass their studio work. 2001’s “Everyday” is a great song in it’s original version, but add a few thousand folks repeating the lyrics word-for-word, and the simple “all you need is love” message becomes something more profound. Add in the scatting, riffing and clicking of South African singer Vusi Mahlasela, and the song damn near becomes a religious experience. Hell, not many other bands can take a song that I barely like in it’s original version (1994’s “Warehouse) and have me waving my hands and grinning ear-to-ear upon hearing the live version on this album.
The live set also includes a rollicking version of 2005’s “Louisiana Bayou” (a song that’s taken on an added poignancy post-Katrina) with guitar master Robert Randolph, as well as a magical version of 1996’s “Two Step” taken from a 2001 performance at Giants Stadium. Featuring a lyric about two people finding temporary joy when the world around them is falling apart (a common motif in Matthews’ work). This version has personal relevance to me because I was actually at this particular show. As the band launched into “Two Step”, the skies opened in a torrential downpour. In an outdoor arena. Despite the fact that concert goers left the show soaked to the gills, Dave Matthews Band’s performance was so electric that barely a soul left where they were standing, and some folks that had turned to leave came BACK to their seats to witness this performance and participate in the communal energy that was fed back and forth. It was without a doubt the most stunning live performance I’ve witnessed out of the many concerts I’ve attended in my lifetime. If there was anyone there who wasn’t a Dave fan when that particular concert began, they certainly were when this show ended.
This compilation encapsulates all that is good about the Dave Matthews Band: excellent musicianship — every member is an absolute master at their instrument; fantastic lyricism — even during Dave’s awkward lyric stage, he was great at conveying an emotion, and he has turned into one of the more astute political songwriters of recent times. In addition, he writes great, playful love songs (see “Crush and the winding “Rapunzel” for proof). The Best of What’s Around serves as the perfect (and long-overdue) primer for the new fan, it also deserves to worm it’s way into the collections of Dave’s diehard fans.