June 6th, 2008
By BRIAN McCOLLUM
The 15-year mark is a crucial point in the life of a rock act.
It's the stage when a veteran band can slip into contentedly running through the motions, or decide it's going to stay on its toes and keep challenging itself.
For the Dave Matthews Band, says bassist Stefan Lessard, opting for the latter is a no-brainer.
It was spring 1993 when the Southern college band settled into its permanent lineup, preparing to issue its first record as it began the wild journey into national fame and eventual status as one of the world's top touring draws. Fifteen years later, it's all still electric for Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford, violinist Boyd Tinsley, sax man LeRoi Moore and the band's singer-songwriter namesake.
"This band is kind of a living, breathing organism," says Lessard in advance of the band's Monday show at DTE Energy Music Theatre. "We're constantly morphing into different shapes and sounds. We don't really aim to sound one particular way or have one particular type of show. We just let it happen as it happens. It's very much in the moment."
The ever-evolving DMB story has entered a new chapter: Back on the road with the band is guest guitarist Tim Reynolds, a close confederate of Matthews who played with the band during the late '90s. Most notably, the group inaugurated a recording partnership last year with producer Rob Cavallo, best known for his work with Green Day and My Chemical Romance. Sessions have begun for the follow-up to 2005's "Stand Up," the band's latest chart-topping, pop-savvy fusion of rock, funk, jazz and world music.
As other '90s bands have fluttered off to the fringes -- back to playing small venues or linking up for retro package tours -- DMB remains vital and relevant. The group sold more than 831,000 tickets in the United States last year, according to Pollstar magazine, placing it behind only the Police, Kenny Chesney and Justin Timberlake. That's a standard sort of feat for the group: Dave Matthews Band is widely regarded in the concert industry as the contemporary act with the most dependable box-office draw.
Dependable enough, in fact, to headline two big area dates this summer: Just three weeks after playing DTE, the band will lead the bill at the inaugural Rothbury festival in western Michigan which runs July 3-6 (www.rothburyfest.com).
In Michigan, DMB's popular appeal goes back to that pivotal year of '93 and a pair of gigs at Ann Arbor's Blind Pig. The group was already becoming well-known along the Eastern Seaboard, where word of mouth and fans' homemade cassettes had helped it become a college-circuit phenomenon. With its sizable population of out-of-state students, the University of Michigan campus was primed to be an early Midwest adopter of DMB buzz.
Dave Clark was a staffer at Prism Productions, which booked the Blind Pig dates. He says signs of the group's staying power were already obvious in '93.
"There was a big, natural buzz before the first show even went on sale. Even back then, they were one of those artists where it was very obvious from a promoter's perspective -- there aren't many acts who can duplicate the live experience the way they do," says Clark, now a vice president with Live Nation, which is promoting Monday's DMB show. "And when it came to the interaction with fans, they embodied this whole social experience of going to a concert with your friends."
The passage of time has provided Lessard with new perspective on the group's early days in Charlottesville, Va. His band wasn't just musically crafty, he says -- it was also quite shrewd in the art of promotion.
"I keep going back to this one thing that I keep realizing: We were essentially a party band," he says. "When we first started, we were playing parties that were already popular -- fraternity parties, street parties, block parties. We were purposely putting ourselves in situations where we would be the musical element to these parties, so we were the ones creating the memories for these people. We weren't trying to be anything else. There were no strings attached. We just went to have as much fun as we could onstage, and that instilled good value in it."
It wasn't a seamless ride into the big time. As DMB's national stature grew in the late '90s -- the post-grunge period when "fun" was a dirty word in rock -- the band was often dismissed by the critical establishment, scorned by cynical reviewers enamored of rock's grittier side.
"At a certain point, you're given criticism even if you don't search it out," says Lessard. "I know we were a hard band to market, and understandably. Look, I started in the band when I was 16. Dave was 21. Carter was 30. And we were all from different backgrounds. We all looked different, and dressed different, and that was a really difficult thing for people to put their heads around. We weren't a typical world beat band -- we were totally unique and rocking. I think that maybe critics didn't really know how to describe us, couldn't put their heads around what we were, and just decided this wasn't going to work."
But critics were the last thing DMB needed to ensure success. With cues from the off-radar world of jam bands, the group had long encouraged a fan culture of show recordings and tape trading. The result was a broad, healthy network of deeply invested band devotees -- activity that easily migrated online when the Internet blossomed, serving as a widely imitated mode for rising bands.
Lessard says today's Dave Matthews Band audience is an eclectic lot, made up of longtime supporters and teen newcomers who have just started their DMB journeys.
"You know the diehard fans are diehard when you start seeing them at the shows with their kids," he says, laughing. "These are people who started seeing us in college, maybe even high school, and now they're bringing their 12-year-olds. That's when you say, 'Gee, we've been around for a while.' "
The trick for band members is getting as pumped up to play as fans are to watch. During tour rehearsals last month, says Lessard, the band felt a familiar old energy seeping back into its performances. The onstage dynamics have changed little over the years -- the bassist still looks to Matthews and Beauford as he locks into the live set -- but the excitement continually renews itself.
"The interaction among us is more of a joyful interaction," he says. "Whatever is going on personally or outside the band, you get onstage and you feel like a giddy schoolgirl or something. You're just so happy to be up there playing with those guys.
"The longer we do this, the luckier we are. There are so many bands in our position who can't even talk to each other anymore. I feel like we actually get closer and closer, and you can really feel that up there -- there's a total admiration among everybody onstage."