by Keith Spera, Music writer, The Times-Picayune
Dave Matthews nearly became a New Orleanian this year.
The Dave Matthews Band spent February at Piety Street Recording in Bywater finishing "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King," a new album due June 2.
And on April 26, the DMB headlined the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. It was the band's first local performance since the August death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore after an all-terrain vehicle accident. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin and trumpeter Rashawn Ross, along with electric guitarist and longtime Matthews collaborator Tim Reynolds, helped fill the void.
Matthews called from his tour bus recently to reflect on his Big Easy adventures.
How does Jazz Fest compare with other festivals you've played?
Jazz Fest has been going on for such a long time... I remember early on when we'd go down to play during Jazz Fest in the '90s, not officially at the site....there's a uniqueness to New Orleans that automatically makes Jazz Fest stand out. For a handful of unusual reasons, the city has become this city unlike any other, almost like a different country. Just the fact that Jazz Fest is inside of that makes it stand out for me.
After spending so much time in New Orleans recording the album, it really has a different place in my heart. Even though we were only going to drop in for a little while, I was looking forward to Jazz Fest just to smell the air and see the branches of the trees hanging low over the streets, and to see the architecture, and visit a couple friends.
If I was to tell someone from a different country which cities to visit in America, I'd have to say New York because there's nothing like that. But I'd also have to say New Orleans, because there's certainly nothing in America like that city. It hasn't been incorporated in this dominant commercial corporatization of the rest of the country. It's a unique, self-sustained city and culture that keeps its identity in a defiant way. It's unintentional -- it just happens that way.
Jazz Fest being inside that automatically makes it a separate experience. And it's not all jazz obviously. Pete Seeger's there, we're there. It's gospel and funk and folk and rock. Festivals tend to focus on a style: Rock and pop music, or a country festival, or a jazz festival. That's not the Jazz Fest.
And the amount of local music....
Everywhere! There's always a concentration of music in the clubs and streets. Jazz Fest highlights that for the city and the people that come in. It is the most musical city that I've ever been to. I'm not saying L.A. and Nashville and New York or Chicago aren't centers of music. But somehow it's in the roots and in the ground in New Orleans. It's in the blood. It's in the celebration and the suffering. It's all around.
Did you come into New Orleans early for Jazz Fest?
We had a gig the night before in Nashville, so coming in early was impossible. And then we had a gig in Atlanta, so staying for too long was impossible, too. We basically came in, then I went home to my family. So it was in and out.
I would have loved to be in the day before to see Pete Seeger, because that was the first concert I ever went to as a little kid. I'm not sure I remember it correctly. It was in New York. I think it was on the back of a flatbed truck. I was so little that I was only as tall as my parents and they were sitting on the grass and I was standing. I remember a slight hill going down to where the music was. I was familiar with his voice because we had a lot of his records when I was little.
So I wish I could have seen him.
Did you see anything the day you played?
Nope. We hung out with a couple people. I saw Ivan Neville but we didn't get to see any DumpstaPhunk. Got some friends in there -- Tony Hall plays bass.
You kept repeating "DumpstaPhunk" during your set.
They were standing on the side (of the stage). I'm a big fan, and they're good friends. And it is ridiculously funky. I love it so much.
You headlined the single largest day in Jazz Fest history -- 160,000 in 2001.
I only found that out on the day of Jazz Fest this time. Something else must have been going on at the same time. People were getting out of the way and they just happened to be in the Fair Grounds.
How do you think your set went this year?
I think it was good. I think we started off pretty hot. We were really excited. We'd been doing a good concentration of gigs up to that point; my legs kinda came out from under me about halfway through.
But we had a lot of fun. There's all these people on stage, behind the stage, in front of the stage...there's a festive quality. So it's kind of hard not to enjoy it, with all the flags. It's hard not to have a really good time.
I think we did pretty well. I'm not a very good judge -- my perspective is somehow warped nowadays. I have a good time, with moments of incredible paranoia when I think everyone is staring at me like, "What are you doing?" But I can't say that because then I'll look like a crazy person.
Maybe it was my crazy paranoia that started to ease that show up a little bit, or maybe we started to get relaxed toward the end. But I thought we came out swinging. In between small flashes of incredible paranoia, I was having a very good time.
What was your perspective?
I thought the first 35 minutes were flawless. Giving Tim Reynolds extra room was good. Turning Jeff Coffin loose...that guy can blow.
And he has a style. I love the energy that he brings on-stage. I think the band is as strong as we've ever been right now.
I wish LeRoi was here. The turning point when we started to fall in love with each other on-stage again happened in the last year of his life. That changes how we perform. Maybe we all lost sight of that for a few years. I don't know if it was loyalty or faith that at some point it would come back....it came back while LeRoi was still there.
Taking advantage of it has brought the band to a really good place in our relationships. I'm sorry that Roi's not here to see that. Obviously he's an integral part of our history, but he really was an integral part of this episode of a turning point in the band.
We miss him enormously. The unique sound that he had is absent. The quiet spirit that he brought to the stage inside the chaos is absent. And also the chaos that he brought when he unleashed it is gone. Maybe moreso now, we carry his belief and his aggression. Hopefully we hold on to that, the willingness to take chances.
How do you decide whether to play "Ants Marching"?
Some nights it seems like a good idea. Sometimes I put a song in because I like the song and other times I put a song in because I like where the instrumental part is going. At this point I like how we've been going into "Ants Marching" and the break inside of it.
I think we'll probably take it easy on that song for the rest of the tour, because we've been playing it for a long time. It just felt nice that day.
You jazzed it up and built a lot around what violinist Boyd Tinsley was doing.
We try to make it interesting for some people who have heard it a few times. For those people that were not used to it, it gave them something to grab onto.
It's the John Mayer dilemma. You want to stretch out and let the band play, but people want to hear the hit songs in their original form.
I never think of it as too much of a dilemma. Let other people have it as a dilemma. Not my department.
During Wilco's Jazz Fest set, Jeff Tweedy was momentarily rattled by a flag in the audience depicting pork chops. Did you see anything odd?
I didn't really notice anything odd. I liked the flags. Maybe there was something waving in there that I should have noticed. I was working at the time. I was sweating.
You sweat through that gray shirt pretty quickly.
I sweat a lot. Can't do anything about that. Always have. I imagine that I always will.
Why cover the Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House"?
We played that last year a couple times. We've been playing it quite frequently this year. It's a fun song to play. I like Tom Jones' version. Didn't he do a version? He should if he didn't.
Maybe we do his version of it. That's probably what happened. He doesn't do a version of it, but we do his version. Our version is his version.
I left for 10 minutes to buy meat pies. Did The Edge sit in with you again?
Nobody sat in with us this year. We were too busy. The Edge doesn't do a lot of that sitting in thing. So (at the 2006 Jazz Fest) we said, "Hey, you've got to sit in, buddy." And he said, "I don't do a lot of that." And we said, "That's all the more reason. We're the easiest band to sit in with. Just come out and play one note. Doesn't matter. Do whatever you want to do. We're a good back-up band."
We don't have a lot of attitude. We just play music, and if you don't like it, go take a flying jump at yourself. We do what we like to do.
The Edge played with you at the first Jazz Fest after Hurricane Katrina.
He was down there doing good work, trying to get some B-3 organs back in the churches.
And your band issued a $1.5 million challenge grant for the Musicians Village in the 9th Ward.
The Musicians Village was a fun, focused project. Now we're trying to figure out some other things we might be able to do. Get the private sector involved in trying to rebuild neighborhoods. Everybody has to do what they can. The scars of a belligerently poor response by the local and federal government to Katrina are still present. It's up to the private sector to help get that city into a new and healthier place.
As soon as your Jazz Fest set ended, you ran toward your tour bus, but stopped to take pictures with fans by the barricades.
I don't have the courage to just go past without saying anything. I was going to fly home to see my kids, which is very important. But by the time I'd get home, they'd be sleeping. So I didn't have anything I really had to rush to get too.
I suppose if I was Madonna or John Mayer and I had a lot of paparazzi around, then maybe I'd get tired of people shouting for me. But I have exactly the amount of no paparazzi. Specifically that amount: Zero.
I'm not too upset about it. Maybe it's my big head: "We can't even fit that guy's face in the camera unless we have a special lens." Maybe I just blend really well. I try and tell myself that it's not just that I'm the Superman of Boring or the Batman of Mundane.
When you were in New Orleans recording, you took the streetcar and generally lived like a local.
I ran into a couple people that would say, "Hey, I know who you are." Mostly not. I ran into people at the coffee shop that I hadn't seen for years. I'd run into musicians.
And people down there tend to be pretty calm. People have a measured perspective on things. Obviously there's still poverty in that city that's been there for a long time, and it's more raw and exposed after Katrina. But there's such a wealth of culture.
Being down there with my family while we were recording made working on music...I didn't feel like we were doing anything unusual. In L.A. or New York, you feel like, "Oh, I'm going to make music. I'm a unique individual."
But I didn't feel like that (in New Orleans). I felt like I was going to work -- to make a record. We were in this cool studio, this studio that is invisible from the outside. Such a great vibe and such a great-sounding space. The people there were awesome. The neighborhood bar we'd pop into to have a drink....
I couldn't have asked for a more special experience to finish the album than in that space and in that city. And to have my family there, and take the streetcar to the zoo or spend a day downtown at the children's museum or go and listen to music at night...and the food. It doesn't matter if you don't have much money in your pocket. What you can afford is going to be good food. They like to eat down there.
I just want to tell more people about that city without it getting overrun. I don't think it will. I think it can handle it. I just really felt at home down there making music. I honestly think that we made the best record we've ever made.
The first three records we made had the energy of this band at its healthiest. Then we made good records after that but...we were sort of in a holding pattern. Not to belittle those records but...they weren't grabbing the band. It was like we all got together and were the musicians on a record. "Stand Up" was a great record but it wasn't like the band.
I don't know how else to say that. It wasn't Carter (Beauford) attacking the drums and it wasn't this sort of frenzy that's in there and the absolute quietness that's in there. Some of my favorite songs I ever wrote were on "Stand Up" and "Busted Stuff." But still there was some element....
On this album, we all found each other. I don't mean we went backwards -- we went forwards. But right from the drums, Carter said, "This is going to be our record now." That's what we made. I'm not saying only because of New Orleans; that would be exaggerating. But I think being in New Orleans had a lot to do with it, with our focus. It set a tone for all of it.
You actually got work done during Mardi Gras.
We did get some work done and I got to take my kids to parades and see crazy people drinking in the morning.
Mardi Gras is another example of a unique city. Most parades around the country, they have at least a corporate sponsor, if not 30, or you'll see giant flags for Miller or Budweiser. But not there. Nothing. No corporate sponsor. No presence of anything that's not New Orleans.
I know there's a history of strangeness in that celebration. The struggles that are in the community, whether it's the history of the South or of bigotry, there are examples of that in the history of Mardi Gras. But what makes New Orleans unique is also in Mardi Gras.
It's its own unique place. Maybe it's all of Louisiana. This album was my falling in love with Louisiana, my falling in love with New Orleans, as well as an homage to my fallen comrade, LeRoi Moore. The great focus of the album was to try and make a record that Roi would have liked us to make. Not to say that we did exactly what we would have done if he would have been there for the end of it, but to finish the record that we started making with him.
He said we should be a better band in the studio than we are on stage. It didn't make sense to him that we couldn't produce the energy in the studio that we could produce on-stage. I think we moved in that direction with this album. You can bring the two worlds together. He was all about that.
I'm grateful that we had recorded spontaneous inventions and early versions of these songs with LeRoi. He is a most present force on the album. The album starts with him and ends with him, and he is represented all over inside of it. I think he would have been really happy with the record. And I know he was psyched that we were going to do it in New Orleans. He loved that city.
The cover of "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King" features a surreal drawing by you of a mule-drawn Mardi Gras float passing through the French Quarter.
I did the drawings after I witnessed Mardi Gras. That was my first Mardi Gras. And I read about it and looked at pictures. I felt like the name (of the album) had a tone to it that was Mardi Gras. So I had the idea of making the GrooGrux an imaginary Mardi Gras parade.
You drew an old float pulled by mules instead of tractors.
Exactly. I like mules, but I like the word "donkey" better. It's kind of like "monkey." "Donkey," "funky" -- all those words are good words. The "k" sound is a very powerful sound. That's why it's lasted.
Did you go totally native and put your kids up on ladders for the parades?
Yes I did.
You watched Uptown around the corner of Napoleon and Prytania, which is very family-friendly.
We were there. We were invisible for most of the time. Then we were adopted by Tiffany, and her family.
We didn't know we had to go reserve a space (on the parade route). So this very kind lady who saw my twins adopted me. Her family informed her later on that I was a nominal celebrity -- not worth any paparazzi, but in some circles I had notoriety.
So then she was excited. She was a lovely lady and very generous to us for no reason other than to say, "Why don't ya'll just come up here?" She was great. And I had a great time catching beads.
You toted your own ladder?
I had help from locals. But my kids had ladders, for sure.