By: Mike Bookey - Jambase
It's cutting late into the afternoon in a town just outside of Pittsburgh and, like he's been doing for most of the summer afternoons in his adult life, Stefan Lessard is getting ready to play a show. Well, he actually calls it a "gig," rather than the massive multi-tour-bus-and-semi-truck production that is required for a performance by the Dave Matthews Band. This night at the Post Gazette Pavilion, some 23,000 fans will be adoring every note Lessard pumps out of his bass as he sways rhythmically back and forth, his instrument snug up to his chest... just like he's been doing, again, his entire adult life.
This "adult life" of Lessard's is one of the more intriguing in the annals of rock & roll. A boy, still of high school age, gets snagged up by a promising singer-songwriter to play in a band of equally promising musicians. In only a few years, that band makes it big – really big – and becomes for some concertgoers the only show they care to see for the entire summer.
But even after watching his band cultivate what has become arguably the most popular live show in the country, Lessard (now 34) on this particular summer afternoon speaks as if things are just getting started for the Dave Matthews Band. And in a way, he might be right. Only a few weeks earlier, the band released the long-awaited record, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, which happens to be the first disc the band will tour in support of without saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died from injuries he incurred in an ATV accident last year. The disc was immediately seen by critics and anyone with a music blog as a sharp departure for the band, which it obviously is, and brought new DMB material back onto the radio waves for the first time in almost half a decade.
"We've been sort of lost in trying to find that original spark, but I can tell you, on stage it feels like we just became successful," says Lessard. "There's just sort of a giddiness I feel up on stage and I think a lot of it has to do with 'Roi."
There isn't much sadness in Lessard's voice when he talks about his fallen bandmate, which isn't to say Moore's passing wasn't tough on the band. But he talks about the completion of Big Whiskey as more of a party than a funeral – more inspiring than remorseful. Many of the horn lines on the record were played by Moore and recorded during the early phases of the album's creation, which is somewhat eerie, but also fitting for a man that was more heard (at least in the form of his horn mastery – he was never a mouthpiece for the band) than seen during his long tenure with the band. Anyone who saw a DMB show with Moore knew that he was almost invisible up there – seemingly shy in his demeanor, but an extrovert through his saxophone. While he wasn't one for the spotlight, Moore's death last summer nonetheless sent a wave of grief and shock through the DMB camp, as well as its fan base. Jeff Coffin of Flecktones fame took Moore's spot alongside touring trumpeter Rashawn Ross for live dates last summer and also contributed to Big Whiskey, but that hardly means that Moore was replaced, on the record or on stage.
"It's amazing when you think about it that this record contains LeRoi and that you hear him in the moment of these tunes, but then you hear us also on top of that dealing with the tragedy of his loss after the fact," says Lessard. "So, he really is a ghost on this record, but he's a very present ghost."
And there is no more ghostly moment on Big Whiskey than the one minute and eleven seconds that begin the album. Called "Grux" – Moore's nickname – this opening track is simply Moore's saxophone and some subtle floor tom fills from Carter Beauford. It's gorgeously haunting, as if Moore is playing in a theater, or in true DMB style, an amphitheater, and the listener is the only other one there to hear it. The song is slightly dark, but weirdly joyous at the same time. This is the first emergence of the ghost that Lessard says is present on the record, but hardly the last.
Big Whiskey was a long time coming, to say the least. The record was recorded on both coasts and a spot in between and spanned three different calendar years as sessions took place in Seattle and Virginia with the bulk of the recording laid down in New Orleans. In terms of production, it might not be a bad bet to put some cash on the assertion that this was the most ambitious (as well as divergent) recording to date by this band. And when they brought on producer Rob Cavallo, a guy more known for taking punk rock sound and making it arena-sized (as he did with Green Day) than molding the sort of complex rootsy numbers on which DMB has hung its hat for almost twenty years, they were probably feeling pretty damn ambitious.
While the recording process was nearing its final stages this spring, I caught up with longtime Matthews collaborator Tim Reynolds, who was then touring with his band TR3 and had recently finished his guitar contributions to the record. Also a full-time touring member of DMB, Reynolds seemed still flying high on the Big Whiskey sessions and seemed ready to carry on for days with praises for Cavallo and high expectations for the album.
"The new record is going to be – it's hard to come up with a word for it – but maybe expansive would be a good way to put it," Reynolds said, going on to discuss Cavallo not only as a producer but as a musician and someone with a skilled ear when it comes to guitar tones.
Expansive is a dead-on summation, but the core of the album is still quintessential DMB, even if a cut like "Time Bomb" could easily be misfiled as a Pearl Jam cut, given that Matthews' voice gets as rough as we've ever heard. Matthews is still imploring the whimsical storytelling he's included on each and every DMB record and several songs, including the first single from the album, "Funny the Way It Is," are marked by the band's penchant for creating poppy hooks out of the most complex arrangements. But what Lessard thinks sets this record apart from its predecessors is that he feels the DMB live emotion has finally made its way onto the album. This is something critics and fans alike have often found absent in DMB's studio efforts.
"Rob was so great about bringing in what we do live and how we create songs in the moment. He was really good in taking that and transforming them into gems of songs and pretty much finding the songs within the jam," says Lessard, adding that Cavallo recorded much of the material live in the studio.
Dave Matthews by Rod Snyder
Lessard repeatedly reinforces the amount of effort the band poured into Big Whiskey, not afraid to gush with pride over the album. Fans, who snagged up nearly a half million copies the first week it was on the shelves, seem to agree, as Lessard says that the crowds at this summer's shows have been responding well to the Big Whiskey material, all but two tracks of which have made it into the band's live show.
"I'm very proud of the process and I'm proud of the lyrics, I think Dave did a wonderful job digging deep," says Lessard. "In a way, his lyrics are a little bit simpler on this record, but to me, they're from a deeper place. Lyrically, this is one of his best works."
In discussing Big Whiskey, Lessard can't help but get comparative, laying it up against the band's long list of well-received records. He is almost nostalgic when he talks about the first three Dave Matthews Band records, recalling how the band was "exploding with a sort of naïveté" when it laid down Under the Table and Dreaming, and continued to do so on the next two albums. He's tentative to set this record up alongside these albums, but does so anyway... well, sort of.
"I have a hard time saying that this record is better than any of those, but at the same time, I feel that this record is, to date, probably most representative of who we are now," says Lessard.
What he says next is as good of a summation of the album and perhaps the state of the Dave Matthews Band as one is likely to hear from anyone.
"It's a new beginning, but it's also a return to the past."
Losing a friend will do strange things to people, sometimes good, sometimes bad. From what Lessard says of DMB, it seems that although losing Moore was difficult, in a strange way there has been a new life, or at least a different life, breathed into the increasingly legendary act. The bassist says that he sees the Dave Matthews Band continuing on – playing the summer tours that have become almost religious tradition for its fans and cranking out challenging records – as long as everyone remains in good health. When he talks of the band's upcoming European tour, where they will be playing to crowds far removed from the Church of Dave that's present here in the states, Lessard does so with the optimism and eagerness of a fledgling bassist. If you didn't know the guy, you'd think he was just cutting his teeth in the touring business by the way he welcomes the challenge of playing to new fans. Lessard gives Moore some thanks for this passion, which very well might be the glue that holds DMB together.
"You know, he taught me one thing and that was to play every single note like it was your last note and that's something I take to the stage no matter what's going on," says Lessard. "The most important thing is that everyone loves playing on stage together, which to tell you the truth is kind of rare and after twenty some years we might have had some moments when we weren't that excited to be on stage together, but those days seem to have moved on."