Dave Matthews Band returns and finds its strength within
By Jerry Shriver, USA TODAY
BOSTON — The band leader wanders into a hotel lounge for an afternoon appointment sounding groggy and hoarse, sporting a thick dark stubble, craving coffee and seeming to validate all of those clichés about a musician's life on the road.
But Dave Matthews' condition can't be blamed on cruising the city's underbelly until the wee hours. On the eve of the first of two sold-out shows at Fenway Park last weekend, the famously normal singer/songwriter and father of three was in bed, where he would "roll and read, roll and read," fretting over the reception that awaited the retooled and re-energized Dave Matthews Band and the material from Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King, the group's first studio album in four years, out today.
'BIG WHISKEY': Read the review
"It's always been that way," mumbles the man who has played before 14 million people since 1994. An additional 40 dates await him on this just-launched summer tour, but big gigs still suck the sleep out of him.
And the tome that got him through the night? "I just cracked a book on sewers."
Sewers? Do tell.
"It's more about how we dispose of our waste, and how the more we separate ourselves from it, the better, but then we don't really deal with it successfully for the same reason.
"I may have found my true calling," he quips as the coffee apparently kicks in.
The fans who have bought nearly 33 million of his group and solo albums over the past 15 years would beg to differ. They've been calling for songs to succeed those on 2005's Stand Up, and the band finally has obliged with what it feels is its most impassioned studio work.
The trademark mélange of jazz, folk, rock, funk, world-beat rhythms and sensitive ballads is in place, injected only with an extra dose of emotion, spurred by the death of founding member LeRoi Moore in the midst of recording sessions. The saxophonist died last August at 46 of complications from injuries suffered in an ATV accident on his farm near Charlottesville, Va.
'Heart and body and soul'
"Everyone's heart and body and soul are fully invested in this record," says bassist Stefan Lessard, who adds that Moore urged the group to capture the dynamic interplay that made it one of history's most successful live acts.
"The sound is very much DMB because every individual contributed to the writing," says violinist Boyd Tinsley.
Sharing that responsibility was a blessing, says Matthews, who often created the bulk of the material. "In the past, I always felt like I was handing in an essay for school. And there were always deadlines. But for this one I said, 'No, we're not done.' There were hopes it would be done a year ago. This was the first time I said, 'Here is a thing we made and you can put it out.' "
Such commitment was necessary for an album borne out of turmoil and tragedy — artistic and personal conflicts within the band, Moore's death and post-Katrina New Orleans, where much of the music was recorded.
Two years ago, the band, which had been together since 1991, found its chemistry dangerously out of whack. Despite having its last four studio albums enter Billboard's album chart at No. 1 and sell a million-plus copies each, the group was struggling.
"We were close to the bottom, and we could see the bottom, but we weren't at the bottom," says Lessard, the group's youngest member at 34. "We could see that this could be no more — no more music and no more making this magic. And this record was the therapy the band needed."
"I was ready to pack it in because I felt like we weren't with each other anymore," says Matthews, 42. "We were just surviving. And then all five of us (drummer Carter Beauford is the other member), we met. We were really having problems, and when we threw that out of the room, we fell in love again."
Back to the business of music
Over the next year, the group began hashing out musical ideas in its hometown studio in Charlottesville and in Seattle, with producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day). The most eager participant was Moore, who told Lessard that he "was excited about everything we were doing. He said, 'These songs are killer. They're really cool.' To know he was so invested and so happy, that's been a lasting inspiration to me."
Matthews had written the lyrics to three songs (including the album's first single, the state-of-the-world commentary Funny the Way It Is), and Moore said, " 'Keep writing like that — that's the stuff that made me want to listen to you,' " Matthews recalls.
But during a break in the tour in June, Moore suffered his accident, and died in August. The band soldiered on and last winter continued to work on the album.
"Part of the mourning was making this record," says Matthews. "It was real comforting in a way. There were moments where it was real difficult, but I think it was really joyful, too."
Cavallo directed the band to record dozens of 10- to 15-minute jams and then pick the most promising ones to develop into songs. The rest of the tunes, some of which incorporated passages recorded by Moore (his solo begins the album), came together early this year when the band resumed recording in New Orleans.
Matthews says the band, particularly Moore, always has had a great affection for the city. Since Katrina, the group issued a $1.5 million matching-grant challenge for Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village project, which builds housing for those displaced by the storm, and headlined the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival twice.
"It's certainly a defiant little place, like a secret soul for the rest of the country," says Matthews. "I found such inspiration."
Ultimately, the city influenced one of the songs, Katrina-themed Alligator Pie (Crockadile); the Matthews-drawn cover art, which depicts Moore's face as the emblem of a Mardi Gras float; and the album's title. "Big whiskey" came from a street musician who hit up Matthews for cash to slake his thirst, and "GrooGrux" was Moore's nickname, a voodoo-sounding insider's reference to something that's totally cool. "And LeRoi is French for 'the king,' " Matthews says.
Motifs of love, sex and spirituality also wove their way into the lyrics, buttressing the elegiac feel. "I don't believe in fate as much as I believe in synchronicity," says Matthews, "but the synchronicity of a monument to LeRoi and at the same time wrapping it as an homage to New Orleans and a gratitude to that city — it's interesting that that could happen without planning."
Always a demand for DMB
While waiting four years between albums and losing a member might derail most bands' momentum, for an established act like DMB, it simply creates "a lot of pent-up demand," says Billboard chart analyst Keith Caulfield During the gap, "people are still discovering their music and buying their old albums. Just last year their catalog sold 353,000 copies in the U.S."
With a slew of new material to present, the band has tweaked its touring lineup. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin and trumpeter Rashawn Ross help fill Moore's role, while Tim Reynolds, who played on the group's first three albums, adds a "brilliant electric guitar sound that really pushes us," Tinsley says. Lessard describes the new sound as "meatier, maybe a little more rocky, a little more organic, more the way we were when we first started."
Matthews cautions that the band "still doesn't know what to do with the future, because he's (LeRoi) not there," but for now, it's eager to showcase the GrooGrux legacy for fans.
"In the past, the reaction to our records has been like having a puppy you fall in love with — in two weeks, you love it more, and in six months, you love it more. This one starts out a good-lookin' dog. And then I think it's only going to get better."