The Dave Matthews explosion.
By Joan Anderman
JUNE 8, 1998: Foxboro Stadium, the local gargantuan venue of choice for rock bands of a certain rarefied stature, has hosted all of three tours in the past few years with enough drawing power to fill 47,000 seats. The Rolling Stones, rock's elder statesmen, are a no-brainer stadium act, as are the genre's current über-gods, U2. And then there's the Dave Matthews Band, whose June 5 concert date at Foxboro sold out in less than two hours. Come again? That funky little jam-rock unit from Charlottesville, Virginia? That clever, harmless quintet with the complicated rhythms and snazzy lead singer? That massively competent, impeccably mannered pop band who rate high among artists least likely to change your world, or your mind, or the face of rock and roll?
It's safe to say that one doesn't expect to file the Dave Matthews Band in the same cultural card catalogue as the Stones and U2. Or for that matter with Beck and Ben Folds Five, the opening acts on the Foxboro bill. Where Beck's fusion is a hip postmodern pastiche, the Dave Matthews Band resurrect '70s jazz rock. Ben Folds is a wise guy with a gift for gorgeously skewed melodies and eccentric gab; Dave Matthews is a nice guy with a very cool voice who pens vague, unremarkable lyrics. So what gives? How do you finger the lure of a line-up that's equal parts Weather Report and Hootie and the Blowfish? How does one interpret a band who find God in both a 30-minute jam and a Top 40 hook?
Matthews is a musical Everyman. He channels pop archetypes like so many spins on the FM band: Sensitive Guy with an Acoustic Guitar; Lusty Lover Boy; Arty, Experimental Performer; Grassroots, Power-to-the People Fella. And the key is, I (and about a gazillion other people) believe him. He's no visionary -- he's not particularly hip-sounding or mind-blowing or groundbreaking. But he's no milquetoast, follow-the-dots entertainer, either. Matthews's appeal is as broad and complex as his band's musical palette -- where pop, rock, funk, and jazz bleed into something surprisingly distinctive.
Before These Crowded Streets, the Dave Matthews Band's third studio album, emphasizes, as ever, the sound of the music over the shape of the songs. This is, after all, a "live" band, heralded since they formed in 1991 for their adventurous, epic-length concert performances. As such the group have been enthusiastically and inaccurately anointed as blood brothers of those other grand-scale jam bands, the Grateful Dead and Phish. Actually there's nothing loose and free-form about the Dave Matthews Band, whose improvisational flights are more about intricate, roiling ensemble grooves and virtuoso solos than anything resembling a long, strange trip.
But that's part of the reason they've sold more than 10 million albums in four years, and why their devoted following ensured that last month Before These Crowded Streets would debut at number one on the Billboard album chart, knocking the Titanic soundtrack out of that spot after a 16-week run. Four weeks after its April 28 release, the disc was certified platinum -- that's a million copies moved in a month. The Dead's albums, by comparison, generally topped off in the range of 250,000. The notion of a spirited jam band who produce pristine, exotic pop does seem like something that recovering Deadheads and undergrad frat boys, fusion fans, pop aficionados, and swooning girls could all get off on. It's also a sound that criss-crosses formats -- rock, alternative, Top 40, and adult contemporary -- like a bat out of radio heaven.
Matthews has taken some flak for being both musically zealous and concerned with pleasing a crowd. We prefer our serious artists to create in a vacuum, with a mind for nothing so mundane as a flourishing fan base. But his approach to a pop song is as convoluted and unorthodox as his ambition to satisfy the throngs with tricky time signatures and a front line comprising saxophone, violin, and acoustic guitar. And it's precisely that fealty to both his muse and his fans that rings so true in his music.
It rings louder and clearer than ever on Before These Crowded Streets, which takes the DMB's now-signature jazz-pop sound and cranks both the technical proficiency and the listener-friendly buoyancy way up. The music is bigger, denser, crisper, grander. It's more fevered and more polished -- a pair of qualities that are tough to synchronize, especially in rock. Give due credit to the DMB's glorious rhythm section: Matthews may be the golden-throated babe magnet, but drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard (both longtime jazz players before Matthews recruited them for his project) are the musical titans. "It would take me and 20 percussionists and a bunch of technicians and mathematicians working for years to achieve one song by Carter," Matthews rhapsodized in Entertainment Weekly last month.
Colossal instrumentalists, Beauford and Lessard burrow into the tightest, juiciest grooves to funk up the mainstream since Steely Dan and Earth Wind and Fire fell out of vogue. This decade has seen the sheer thrill of a virtuoso rhythm section subsumed by the pull of the stylistic tide -- grunge, electronica, scrap metal, and sampling -- toward far-flung aesthetics that value decibels or distortion, lo-fidelity or heavy ambiance over plain old muscular musicianship. The Dave Matthews Band's appeal lies in the way they resurrect rock's glory days of sophisticated artistry without sacrificing ingenuity or a spirit of adventure.
That's not to say that Before These Crowded Streets is a flawless monument to pop songcraft. In an apparent effort to reveal his darker, more profound, side, Matthews has written a few tunes that read like billboards for self-actualization. "The Dreaming Tree" is a limpid fusion that skitters quietly while Matthews conjures allegorical images along the lines of "Mommy come quick/The dreaming tree has died." The Kronos Quartet contributes beautifully nervous, keening string figures to "The Stone" and "Halloween," but Matthews stumbles when he attempts to match the menace and rapture of the orchestral swells with guttural growls and operatic wails.
By and large, though, the album moves along at the deliriously propulsive pace set by "Pantala Naga Pampa," a 40-second snippet that opens the CD with swaying, cavorting chords, an intricate web of percussion, plus Matthew's octave-defying invocations to "Come and relax, now, put your troubles down." As ever, violinist Boyd Tinsley and saxophonist Leroi Moore bow and blow sheets of notes that spread like connective tissue between the rhythms and the melodies; they stretch out farther, too, carving sultry, Middle Eastern scales on "The Last Stop" and dancing a winsome pas de deux on "Spoon," a lovely ballad that features Alanis Morissette on breathily tortured vocals and banjo master Bela Fleck plucking infinitely warmer, richer tones than one might ever have hoped to hear from that homy instrument.
I'm a little mystified by the band's choice of a first single (not that they need to fret over wooing an audience at this stage). "Don't Drink the Water" is a murky, paranoid sort of meditation on the politics of greed and violence -- the least persuasive and engaging of the CD's motifs. Words have always been the weak link in the Dave Matthews Band. To make matters worse, Dave is in love -- big time -- which accounts for another prominent theme on the album. Let's just say that Matthews's deviant fantasies about the woman across the way in "Crash into Me" (from the album Crash) were significantly more compelling than "Lovely lady/I will treat you sweetly/Adore you/And I know/How I love you" (in the new song "Crush").
But, hell, they can play. And when they do, people lock into the crazy rhythms
and bask in the luminous melodies and don't give a shit about current trends or
important art or deeper meanings. Which perhaps says something deep and
meaningful about the Dave Matthews Band, funky little jam-rock unit from
Virginia, who are tapping into a neglected, full-to-bursting chamber buried in
the increasingly dark heart of popular music.
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