R.I.P. LeRoi Moore

My first Dave Matthews Band concert felt like Christmas morning. I had studied and scrutinized every note, every chorus, every funny background noise, every indecipherable Dave Matthews utterance, and every vocal on my Crash and Under the Table and Dreaming cassettes. I ceremoniously laid out my corduroys and polo the night before. My four-year wait from first listen to first show was almost over, and Maceo Parker’s opening set could not end soon enough. What followed was nothing short of cataclysmic to my 12-year-old senses: a sweet piney smoke was foreign but ubiquitous; the lights were unlike any fireworks or holiday display I’d ever seen; violin playing had never seemed so extreme, a drummer so ambidextrous, or a saxophone so perfectly complimentary to Matthews’ acoustic jams. The decibels shook my small frame and I stared in delight (irregardless if I knew the song or not), completely entranced by their live power and dynamism. The band could not have seemed any more visceral or awesome.

Congregating with friends afterwards — euphoric and dazed by what they had just seen — they all had the same question: “Who was that crazy saxophone-playing midget?”

LeRoi Moore wasn’t just a short, stocky, saxophone-wielding backing member of the Dave Matthews Band (DMB). He was a gentle but masterful woodwind playing beast — and nothing short of pivotal with his role in the band. If Dave Matthews had never approached LeRoi Moore one night in Charlottesville, Virginia, about playing on some tunes he had written, he may have just continued playing jazz every Thursday at Miller’s with the John D’Earth quintet while Matthews made the drinks. This was still a possibility in the beginning as Moore was not impressed with Matthews’ initial musicality, and their first session was a mess. But he took a risk on the young songwriter that he’d never regret.

Matthews’ first encounter with Moore was a bit uncharacteristic of the normally subdued jazz musician. A bit drunk, Moore was leaning on the bar to stay up. Matthews cites it as musical love at first sight, though, after hearing him play “the most beautiful version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ that I ever heard in my whole life”.

That Moore was the first band member to collaborate with Matthews on his songs is ingrained in the group’s albums and sound. His agile and rich flute and tenor sax solos on the fan favorite “#41” exuded R&B and jazz and are as inseparable from the song as the hi-hat rhythm opening. Without his funk-flexing baritone runs and solos on “So Much to Say”, the song would have never sounded so revelatory when Matthews sang “Sometimes / I find it’s better to be somebody else”, and — who knows? — won a Grammy. If Moore’s sax didn’t punctuate violinist Boyd Tinsley’s sawing and the surrounding rigor on “Warehouse”, only to sensitively diffuse it with sultry soloing in the harmonious resolve and outro, the track would be frighteningly wan. The evolution of “Jimi Thing”, a live institution per se, had seemingly revolved around Moore’s animated solo, reincarnating the last few years as a salute to Maceo.

None of the above would have been remotely possible for DMB with any other sax player. Though he studied the tenor saxophone while attending James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and became very involved with the Charlottesville jazz scene — notably with John D’Earth and Dawn Thompson, in addition to founding the Charlottesville Swing Orchestra in 1982 — Moore never categorized himself as a jazz musician. Rather, he imbued a keen adaptability, enabling him to seamlessly, but significantly, embellish whatever melodies Matthews had in his head. His versatility insured a liberty in Matthews’ writing, because Moore would always match sentimentality, mood or tone. He could be daring and conspicuous (“Recently”), lyrical and emotive (“Seek Up”), funky and deliberate (“What Would You Say?”), or simply forge a new style, uniquely catering to the fledgling sound the group was cultivating (“Tripping Billies”, “Ants Marching”). His saxophones were as fundamental a component of the ensemble as Tinsley’s pioneering violin, Matthews’ innovative guitar riffs, Carter Beauford’s intricate rhythms and Lessard’s smooth bass. And at no point in rock ‘n’ roll music had this ever been the case.

It’s true that frequent Pink Floyd collaborator Dick Parry soloed on “Money”, “Us and Them” and other songs, which was somewhat novel for rock ‘n’ roll. The instrument was an interloper, acceptable for doo-wop, R&B, and jazz but never rock. His soloing was nothing new, though, and Parry was neither a permanent nor founding band member, a glorified session musician at most. In other words, his impact on the group’s signature sound was negligible. Moore on the other hand, equally surrounded by competent and motley players, was branded into the group’s sound, woven into its fabric. He regularly wrote the arrangements for Matthews and shares songwriting credits on almost a fifth of the group’s works. Such prominence had never been attributed to a sax player in mainstream rock music and it’s questionable whether it will again.

No matter the style, the venue, the fame, or his distinction in the group, he was indelibly his soft-spoken self. In fact Moore had notorious stage fright and rarely spoke, if at all, preferring to lurk in the shadows of stage left or his shades, patiently waiting to contribute. And that’s exactly what was so endearing about him: That using only his arsenal of saxophones, flutes and penny whistles, he could command as much authority, emotion and response as Matthews’ idiosyncratic yelps and Tinsley’s pectoral-flaunting solos. He was reticent and private on the grandest stage imaginable, revealing a rare sincerity and devotion to his art form. Despite relentlessly selling out stadiums and playing to thousands upon thousands of fans, Moore shunned vanity with an almost philosophical purity. He was always a musician, never a star.

In DMB circles Moore was notoriously reclusive, and information about him was always anecdotal at best. His band bio was a meager 96 words. If his musical identity was so resolute, what else did we need? Which is why the news of his ATV accident and subsequent death were so shocking. We only knew his convictional playing and emotive touch. We only consumed his finesse and funk as they effortlessly lent themselves to Matthews’ earnest vocals and guitar playing. We only hoped for years for him to finally take off his sunglasses at shows.

There’s a scene in Peter Pan where Pan instructs the Darling kids to conjure up happy thoughts in order to fly, and Michael yells “Christmas!” After my seminal DMB concert experience, I would have eagerly shouted — in my adolescent soprano — “Dave Matthews Band!” Even though I shed my DMB obsession years ago, I can’t help but feel this is the end of an era. With Moore’s passing, the band has lost its saxophone pillar, an irreplaceable voice, and they will never be the same.

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