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How Dave Matthews Found His Groove

April 26, 1996

The Boston Globe - By Steve Morse

When Dave Matthews was 9 years old, he took lessons from a guitar teacher who made a lasting impression. "I was a horrible student," says Matthews. "But he told me, 'Keep your foot tapping whatever you do.' That has always stuck in my mind. If you miss a note or you miss a chord, as long as you keep the rhythm going, it really doesn't matter. Maybe I already knew it, but he verbalized the necessity to stay in the groove."

Matthews, now 29, has stayed in the groove ever since with his unique funk-rock-jazz-fusion - and it's paid dividends. His Dave Matthews Band sold 3 million copies of its last album, "Under the Table and Dreaming." And now he's back with an even better disc, "Crash," which comes out Tuesday and vindicates last year's surprise accent to arena-headlining status.

Simply put, Matthews playes the hardest-driving acoustic guitar this side of Pete Townshend. "I think it really came out of playing acoustic and wanting to be louder, but not wanting to be electric," Matthews says froma a Manhattan hotel. "I think it's a love of drum and a love of percussion that led me there. I really almost try to think of the guitar and each string on the guitar as a percussion instrument."

Explore Matthews' background and you'll see why. He's spent half his life in South Africa, soaking up African percussion music; and half his life in the United States and England, soaking up Western pop, rock, funk, and metal. His dad was a physicist who moved around doing scientific research, while Matthews' research was musical.

It eventually led to his forming the unorthodox Dave Matthews Band from his current base of Charlottesville, Va. The group features Cajun/Gypsy violinist Boyd Tinsley, R & B saxophonist Leroi Moore and the virtuoso, jazz-stoked rhythm section of bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford.

They released their first record in 1993 (the mostly live "Remember Two Things," which was partly recorded at Nantucket's Muse Club), then "Under the Table and Dreaming" in 1994. The first sold 350,000, the second 3 million (spurred by word-of-mouth promotion and appearances on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival), setting the stage for the new, sky's-the-limit "Crash."

"There are a lot of things that have happened to us in the last year," says Matthews. "My guitar playing has gotten a lot better. I think my singing has gotten a lot better. And I've learned a lot about melodies from Leroi, Boyd, and Stefan. We're learning from each other - and it's all helped what we have to offer as a group."

Matthews & Co. also did it "their way" in the studio this time, recording at Bearsville in upstate New York. "For our previous record, we did it by the book. We had click [metronome] tracks and we did the rhythm section first, and then added things on top. This album is more by our book. We just got in a circle - reminiscent of our early rehearsals - and played to each other. There was a lot of creating as we went, a lot of jamming, and hours and hours of tape used up. And it really lent itself to an energy. There are very different songs from one to the next, but I feel there was a sensibility that stayed the same."

The album opens briskly with "So Much To Say," with Matthews' edgy acoustic guitar giving way to squawking saxophone and the playful lyrics, "My heaven is a nice house in the sky/Got central heating and I'm alright." The band's affirmative lifestyle is seen in "Two Step" ("Celebrate we will, because life is short and sweet for certain") and "Proudest Monkey" (a rather goofy song, though, prooving Matthews' point that lyrics are his weak link and that he needs to get stronger in that department). There's also a touch of collegiate hormones in "Crash Into Me" (about boyish lust), but it's balanced by the seriousness of "Cry Freedom," a ballad sparked by the struggle for independence in South Africa.

Matthews attended high school in South Africa - and recalls going to several marches there to end apartheid. "There would be people singing the most incredible music in the face of police with tear gas and bats," he says. "The singing gives a sense of being completely invincible, which is not true, but it is in a way. It keeps the spirit of the people up. A lot of that hope and spirit is going to save that country, and has enabled the guilty people there to be forgiven."

While in South Africa, Matthews also listened to artists like King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita and Hugh Masakela. He fused that with the sounds he heard in the West (he lived for a time in Westchester County outside New York City). That encompassed everything from the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple ("I went though a heavy metal stage"), to Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor.

Meanwhile, he was forging his unusual, boundary-less guitar style. In his popular song, "Satellite," he even views his fingers as moving in a dance pattern. "It's like thinking of the guitar as a dance floor or something, thinking of what wierd ways I can move around the neck. Which in a way limits my learning a lot of the technical things that most guitarists I meet talk about. A lot of them are amazed at how ignorant I am around a guitar. When I sit down and talk to Guitar magazine, I feel so stupid."

Matthews may not talk guitar jargon, but his funky, pan-cultural sound has caught fire with audiences. They especially love the way he and his band spontaneously change songs from night to night. So it's no suprise that his group has been lumped in with the neo-hippie, jamband movement. "I think our audiences like the fact that the songs aren't written in stone," he says.

As for his group's rapid rise into large amphitheaters (they play Great Woods June 7), Matthews does sound like a neo-hippie. "I just like playing," he says. "And I think intimacy can still be achieved in places like that. It's not that many acres, and we're all standing on the same place. So thre must be some sense of community that you can build up."

1996, articlesdbtp