September 11th, 2006
By Mark Brown, Rocky Mountain News
"As the money that we've already put in is used up, we're just going to keep adding in," Dave Matthews says of his band's contributions to Hurricane Katrina relief in New Orleans. "Who knows how long the rebuilding effort will take?"
Dave Matthews has seen it with his own eyes. He's watched the dollars that fans paid at last year's Katrina benefit concert at Red Rocks turn into honest-to-goodness new houses in the devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
"We were on the site and houses were going up. The people whose houses (they) were gonna be - some of them were there. 'This is gonna be my house.' It's really a tangible thing," Matthews says.
The new homes were built two feet above the highest Katrina flood line to avoid catastrophic repeats.
Last year's unprecedented benefit show, held while New Orleans was still underwater, raised $1.5 million, and Habitat for Humanity has been using those dollars to build a planned 300 homes for musicians.
In donating the money, Matthews challenged others to step up, and more money has flowed in from corporations - an effort that all started when Matthews and Denver officials decided to do something rather than just watch.
"The level of the catastrophe was unknown, but already everybody involved at that show was saying, 'We'll work for free.' From the truck drivers to the hot dog vendors, the beer vendors, security - everybody. Instantly. When everyone is so automatically committed, it doesn't really take anything. All the paperwork, all the logistics - we'll just work it out. The commitment comes first," Matthews says.
That's why Matthews - who has shows Tuesday and Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center - is so dismayed when he sees so much of New Orleans still devastated and by what he sees as the government's failure to act. If a musician and music fans can get houses built, why can't the most powerful nation on Earth get its act together?
"If they'd done it that way, we'd be halfway done. Instead it's 'We'll give this contract to these corporations, and they'll work with the insurance companies . . . ' and a year down the line, nothing," Matthews says. "What does it say about our country when Hezbollah is more proficient at rebuilding war-torn Lebanon than the U.S. government is at rebuilding the flooded New Orleans? It's sickening. I'm not promoting Hezbollah. I'm saying what the (expletive) is going on in Washington?"
He's thrilled, however, with what the private sector has done.
"Habitat for Humanity is one of the most remarkable, selfless, wonderful organizations. It's so perfect - no (bull). We go, we build houses. That's what we do. We don't care where the money comes from, we're going to build houses."
Even that, however, gets bogged down in politics. Last time Matthews was there, "they told us the day before that our commander in chief had been down there for a photo op at the Habitat thing," he says. "There he was on the cover of the paper. There he was, carrying wood, helping with the Katrina relief effort, hammer in hand.
"But it was at a site that the government had nothing to do with! Which shows the shallowness of the effort.
"I don't understand it. The only answers I can come up with . . . are just so terrible I can't even say them. It's just unforgivable."
That's not going to stop the private effort, however.
"It was such fun, that fourth concert. It was such a great feeling in the air at Red Rocks," Matthews says. "As the money that we've already put in is used up, we're just going to keep adding in. Who knows how long the rebuilding effort will take?"
Matthews is talking from a hotel room in San Francisco where the interview is briefly interrupted when he's startled by the sight of a naked woman in the window across the way ("I probably should walk away. But I don't think so").
Matthews says he plans to record a new album for release next year, but fans are already hearing new songs like Shotgun, Sister and Kill the King in concert and even on an AOL webcast.
The new songs haven't been influenced by Katrina or other events.
"I don't really drive that way," Matthews says. "I'm not really good at being too direct. If I can take the back door, I will, rather than throw tomatoes right into the face of the enemy."
The new songs the band is playing live have found their way to the Internet, but Matthews (with a longtime taper-friendly policy still intact) is far beyond caring about such things.
"People wanna hear it, and if they wanna hear it that's great. It's like sketches. Maybe if I was a painter and I worked on something and someone got the sketches - I don't feel that precious about it," he says. "I don't wanna fight that fight. There are other fights. (Forget about) my intellectual property. I'm lucky enough to play music for a living. What bothers me more is that the night of the AOL thing, my voice was blown. It sounded like I'd just swallowed a box of nails."
Before the new album is done, there will be a greatest-hits package in October with songs voted on by the fans. It'll provide "some closure on this episode of our relationship with RCA," Matthews says. He's not sure of the business future of the band but notes: "Big record companies are not the same gateway to the listener that they once were. . . . A fresh start is always good.
"The industry . . . is in tatters. It doesn't know what it's doing. It's pretty close to dead in the water. But I can still play a gig. That's all I care about."