The book of Matthews, Music, meaning and the DMB
September 8th, 2005
By Mark Brown, Rocky Mountain News
Dave Matthews sounds terrible.
That's not a musical criticism; rather, he's battling a killer cold on the way to a show in Albuquerque while at the same time reflecting on life, death, God, fate, hurricanes and his own search for answers.
Maybe, he says, it's his own search that has connected fans to him - enough for the Dave Matthews Band to fill Red Rocks for the next four nights running, including Monday's hurricane-relief show, which was expected to sell out even with many tickets priced at $1,000 each.
While some find answers in religion or nature, some of his early ones came through music, he says.
"I was amazed by music as a kid, always. And by art of all kinds, but music was an instantaneous thing. It amazed me since I can remember. That's what drew me to it," he says.
"I'm always wondering, 'Why?' I'm fairly confident that the answer is 'Because.' I sort of juggle those things. Maybe someone else will find some solace in the lyrics of a song."
Tackling big questions
From his major-label debut in 1994 with Under the Table and Dreaming to his new album, Stand Up, Matthews' work has always looked at big questions.
But of late he's found particular themes of sin and redemption. It's there on Stand Up. Hello Again looks at sin and confession. American Baby acknowledges problems but finds redemption through love.
"Like anybody else, I'm searching, but I'm not a particularly religious person by any means. Certainly I don't belong to any organized faith," he says.
"With or without God, there is always the question of 'Why?' and 'What is good and what is bad?' Those battles are a thing I've always been thinking about. Is it bad to be a (screw-up)? Is it good to be a saint? Does any of that really matter at all, other than to yourself?"
Matthews isn't trying to be flip, even if he rejects the notion that the entity that made the universe sits around and adds up all our sins ("He made all this, and now he's an accountant? Counting sins? What a pathetic idea!").
A recent band favorite, Bartender, was finally released on Busted Stuff in 2002. In it, Matthews stumbles into a dive where the bartender is God himself. Matthews bellies up to the bar/altar and requests eternal salvation: Bartender, please, fill my glass for me / with the wine you gave Jesus that set him free after three days in the ground.
"I like the idea of making God into a bartender. There's a real clear connection between (religion and alcohol)," says Matthews, who once tended bar himself. "There's a healing quality . . . that we get from wine and removing ourselves. There's been that for thousands of years. I like that idea with God - 'Hey, redeem me.' "
The mysteries of adulation
He's not entirely sure why fans gravitate toward his music; he knows he's popular, but there are nights when he stands before a huge crowd, awed by what he sees.
"I almost feel like it's a waste of time to try and understand it," he says. "I can be surprised by it. I know that I worked very hard. I think there's an attempt at a version of honesty that I try to have. There's an attempt at finding reason to celebrate. There's an attempt at spontaneity. I don't think I can be specific beyond that. A lot of people find a connection with me. But I don't know what exactly it is."
And it's not a one-way street.
"I remember my admiration for people who made music when I was little. I thought, 'Wow, I'd like that admiration.' There's a very selfish quality - I wanna be able to do this. I know how it makes me feel when someone else can do it."
Making up a set list is getting more and more difficult, which is why Matthews is glad to have four shows at Red Rocks - all the better to shake things up night after night. Fans can expect a heavy dose of Stand Up.
"I don't think we've made a record where we've been this strongly attached to the music. . . . All of us are really in love with the new songs. Some more than others have taken a life of their own in the sets and have been a blast to play.
"There are a few people who'd like us to play only stuff that nobody wants to hear," Matthews says of his more obsessive fans. "And there are the people who want to hear only the hits. We can never quite make everybody happy, which is fine. We're just trying to blow people's heads off."
Matthews also throws in an inspired cover song from time to time. At his last concert at the Pepsi Center, he brought Warren Haynes out to help on Neil Young's Cortez the Killer.
"Whether it's playing a song we haven't played of our own in a long time or spontaneously breaking into a song we've never played before, sometimes it's like medicine without us knowing. It always helps to change things, to give energy to all of us," Matthews says.
The Red Rocks shows will be filmed for possible release, "but we film every night anyway," he says. "I think we have a couple of extra cameras coming in."
Finding a fresh approach
When recording for Stand Up began, Matthews and his band didn't come armed with finished or half-finished songs but instead went into the studio "prepared, but only with an eagerness."
They're so thrilled with the results that they're champing at the bit to get into the studio again.
"Knowing what stride we hit after a month with this record, we're going to hit the ground at that speed at least. I'm very excited about the next record. It may be unlistenable!" Matthews says.
It's unusual, because the band has reached that point in its career (about 14 years) when members usually start to take one another for granted or get bored.
It's when the Stones started going flat in the '70s; it's when Bruce Springsteen (temporarily) dismissed the E Street Band.
"Like anybody else, we get tired of each other. We're grateful that we're somewhat like a family," Matthews says. "(Making Stand Up) was in a way sort of a wake-up, but a really beautiful one. Suddenly we're all looking around going, 'Wow, it's nice to see everybody.' "
The DMB finds itself in a rare position of self-awareness. The members may not always see eye to eye, but they know they have a chemistry.
"We can do anything we want, all of us as musicians. But (the band) is something that we can't do again. I'm sure there'll be one day when we'll go, '(Screw) it, we're going to drop this and do something else.' But why walk away from it?" Matthews says. "If a seeming boredom or tiredness comes in, go do something else, walk away, take a walk, then come back. It's an exceptional thing to be part of."
Onstage, it can work even better.
"There are nights where it's like 'Wow, that was magic.' All the other nights, no matter how much they're like work or digging a ditch - on those nights you think about the nights that are effortless. Always think about those nights that you fly, and expect the nights when you dig," he says.
"Bitterness will only come from throwing this away. I may be temporarily bitter, but the longer we stay together, the less regret we'll feel about this magical thing we've been part of."