This unique and refreshing band made it big the old-fashioned way: through hard work, nonstop touring, and word of mouth accolades. What makes them so unique is that they’re a racially mixed band (whose oldest member is 14 years older than its youngest) that prominently showcases a saxophone/flute player (LeRoi Moore) and violinist (Boyd Tinsley) alongside Matthews’ accomplished acoustic guitar playing. In addition, the stellar rhythm section of drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard brings the funk, and this longish major label debut (the band’s second album following the independent release, Remember Two Things) features rootsy, upbeat meditations that allow an already seasoned road band to stretch out. Though they’re a jam band in the grand tradition of the Grateful Dead, the songwriting is surprisingly accomplished throughout, beginning with the swirling “The Best of What’s Around,” an excellent album opener, and then continuing with the single that broke the band big, “What Would You Say?” This song demonstrates both the band’s strengths and weaknesses, as the funk feels a little forced and clunky, and Matthews’ butch vocal delivery is infinitely inferior to his mellower singing style. To put it bluntly, Matthews is capable of singing quite beautifully when he uses his frail, plaintive voice, but he’s largely ineffective as a rock singer. Fortunately, the song is also rhythmically adventurous and catchy, thereby overcoming its flaws, and most of the album is in a more atmospheric, mellow vein, including superlative slower songs (and hit singles) such as “Satellite,” “Typical Situation,” and “Jimi Thing.” Other highlights from this consistently tuneful and melodic album include "Dancing Nancies" and "Warehouse," while “Ants Marching” (another hit single) arguably presented the best example of the type of bright and upbeat "feel-good music" that this band is capable of creating. Perhaps this expansive album is a little too leisurely paced at times, the album itself is over-long (63 minutes), and these guys will never be the hippest band around, but 20 years later Under The Table And Dreaming remains my favorite Dave Matthews Band studio album.
Crash (RCA ’96) Rating: B+
This follow-up to the spectacularly successful Under The Table And Dreaming sprawls out for an even more ambitious 68 minutes, thereby enabling the band to better accentuate the grooves of their busily complex yet always accessible interplay, which is inviting even when the songwriting isn’t up to snuff. This is the case more often than on their hit-filled, filler-free previous album, thought the inescapable hit “Crash Into Me” and “Say Goodbye” both serve as softly sung highlights. Fortunately, there’s much else to enjoy here, including catchy, horn driven funk workouts such as “So Much To Say” and “Too Much,” the memorably moody "Two Step," and the brilliantly upbeat “Tripping Billies.” The boring ballad “Let You Down” is the only song here that doesn’t really register with me on any level, though there’s also a reason that only one of these songs garnered any radio airplay. The band again succeeds best in their mellower style, where Matthews’ seductive singing enhances the material instead of trying to ruggedly force its way into a more rocking style that he doesn’t fit into nearly as well. Again the band works as a musical democracy, with each essential member adding coloring to an eclectic overall sound that can be described as a funky roots rock hybrid (with a dash of jazz) that’s all about improvisation (for example, the pretty "41" is more an impressively mellow jam session than a song proper). As such, the band remains better live than on record, but sound-wise Crash was a closer approximation of their renowned live shows than Under The Table And Dreaming, which had superior songwriting on the whole. Here’s hoping that the next time out the band continues to play to their considerable improvisational strengths while also delivering consistently stellar songwriting, thereby giving their loyal fans the best of both worlds.
Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 (RCA ’98) Rating: A-
When I first heard about the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) in 1995 I was instantly intrigued, and when I heard that they were opening for Big Head Todd and the Monsters (remember them?) I decided to get tickets. Well, such was the buzz about the band's live shows that when the concert came around a few weeks later poor Big Head Todd was opening for the DMB, and there was little doubt who everyone had come to see. Despite some fine, highly polished studio albums, the DMB are and always will be a live band first and foremost, and though you can probably download better shows if you know where to look, this album is arguably the best of the band's "official" live releases. As such, Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 is the best easily available representation of DMB the jam band (rather than DMB the song band), as most of these 17 songs (spread out over 2 discs) are expanded to include solo spotlights and/or groove-intensive interplay beyond what the studio tracks offer. Sure, several sections meander and some songs merely regurgitate the strengths of the studio versions ("Satellite" and "Typical Situation," for example), but most of Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 works as a necessary complement to the band's first three albums (Remember Two Things, Under The Table and Dreaming, and the as of then not yet released Crash). "Seek Up" (13:30), "Two Step" (9:21), "Dancing Nancies" (9:10), and "#36" (12:55) are the most radically expanded renditions, while great energy and performances mark "The Best Of What's Around" and "Ants Marching." Other highlights include "Lie In Our Graves," "Rhyme & Reason," and an intense cover of Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower," one of several songs that surprisingly features an electric guitar solo. You know, the more I listen to the DMB the more I realize that, though these are Matthews' songs, the true heart of the band, and its most impressive performers, are drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist LeRoi Moore. They really make this set what it is, yet all of the band's members are important, and each is given a chance to shine here. Some listeners may miss the more polished craft of the band's studio albums, but at its best Live at Red Rocks 8.15.95 delivers the most exciting Dave Matthews Band music yet.
Before These Crowded Streets (RCA ’98) Rating: B+
With 10 songs (excluding "Pantala Naga Pampa" which is merely a 40 second intro to "Rapunzel") clocking in at a sprawling 70 minutes, this album meanders even more than usual. The songwriting is patchy as well, and Matthews' vocals are again at times problematic, with an especially grating vocal all but ruining “Halloween.” Fortunately, the album still has enough strong songs to warrant the Dave Matthews Band’s current status as stadium filling superstars. For example, "Rapunzel" is a hooky showcase for the band's impressive musicianship that is most notable for its stop and start dynamics. Elsewhere, “The Last Stop” and “Don’t Drink The Water” are ominously dark, atmospherically charged songs with a moody Middle Eastern influence. The former song features some snake charmer saxophone from Moore, while the latter tune, featuring Alanis Morissette on backing vocals and Béla Fleck on banjo, was an odd choice for the album’s first single (where it was edited down from 7:03 to 4:35). On the album version, “Don’t Drink The Water” changes gears after about 5 minutes, moving from a pretty, leisurely paced track onto Matthews' over the top vocal, which tries way too hard to be dramatic. On the lighter side is "Stay (Wasting Time)," an enjoyably upbeat and relaxed pop song with gospel backing vocals, and "Crush," one of the band's best ballads, though it doesn't quite justify its 8-minute running time. In fact, most of the songs here, particularly on the album's sometimes lackluster second half, run on for too long, though "Pig" is another pleasingly pretty and melodic album track. Granted, with the band’s symbiotic interplay still stunning at times, there’s still lots to like on this highly adventurous album, but Before These Crowded Streets would’ve benefited from stricter editing standards and tighter song structures.
Listener Supported (RCA ’99) Rating: B+
With more live albums than studio albums, it's not surprising that the DMB have been called heirs to the lineage of the Grateful Dead. Like the Dead, DMB have a strongly supportive (though not nearly as fanatical) fan base and only lukewarm support from the critics. Both bands also have reputations for being better live than in the studio, and Listener Supported again tries to satisfy the band’s fans who feel that “they sound so much better live!” Unfortunately, though this is another fine showcase for already existing fans, it's not quite the definitive live album I had hoped for, and it certainly isn’t the place to start for non-converts. This double album features a solid cross section of songs and is mostly bare of hits (“Crash Into Me” and “Don’t Drink The Water” being the lone radio tracks), as the band instead concentrates on expanded versions of album tracks. Covers of the traditional “Long Black Veil” and Dylan/Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” also appear, though neither are overly inspired, and you can also skip the first song, which is essentially a boring 6-minute introduction. Elsewhere, the album is too relaxed at times, but by and large it's a lively affair that serves as another enjoyable addendum to the band’s studio albums (start with the Live at Red Rocks 8.15.85 or The Central Park Concert live albums first, though). Saxophonist Moore especially shines on several solos (“Rapunzel,” “#41,” “Jimi Thing”), while guest keyboardist Butch Taylor also acquits himself quite well, particularly on “True Reflections” and “Two Step.” Gospel-ish backing vocalists add a spiritual edge to several songs, and though they can’t mask corny sentiments such as “find some inspiration, it’s down deep inside of you,” when the band connects it's easy to see why their concerts are routinely supported by so many listeners.
Everyday (RCA ’01) Rating: B-
After going through a period of depression and rejecting an almost complete album with Steve Lillywhite (who had done an excellent job in producing their previous three studio albums), Dave Matthews hooked up with producer Glen Ballard, previously best known for his work with Alanis Morissette. The two hit it off immediately, bashed out 12 songs in about two weeks, and then called in the rest of the band to perform on what were by and large fully developed songs. As such, for the first time the rest of the DMB merely backs up Matthews rather than fully participating in the creative process. The songs are much shorter, too, plus Matthews plays more electric guitar. Matthews' must've felt that the change was necessary at the time, but the more disciplined, structured songwriting style actually takes the band away from their greatest strength (their groove-based playing), and few of these more pop oriented songs are easily remembered even after multiple listens. There are some solid songs, though, in particular the brightly beautiful ballad “The Space Between” (i.e. the space between him and her), which presents the album’s primary theme. That theme is echoed in “Sleep To Dream Her” (not to mention Roxy Music’s Avalon years earlier!), while “Dreams Of Our Fathers,” "So Right," and “Everyday” all have melodic mid-tempo choruses. Unfortunately, though guest Carlos Santana returns a favor (Matthews had guested on Santana’s Supernatural album) by delivering some fiery fretwork to “Mother Father,” the subservient roles of Moore and especially Tinsley robs the band of the dynamic magnetism that had previously made them so distinctive. As a result, Everyday is merely a modestly enjoyable and rather nondescript effort from this ever-likeable if increasingly confused combo.
Busted Stuff (RCA ’02) Rating: B+
Much like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it's impossible to compose a review of this album without first detailing its convoluted history. Nine of these 11 songs were first recorded with producer Steve Lillywhite. Unhappy with the desolate, depressing results, which perhaps hit a little too close to home, Matthews shelved the project and recorded the more commercial Everyday with Glen Ballard. Many fans, most of whom were disappointed in Everyday, much preferred The Lillywhite Sessions, the nine original songs that were leaked to the Internet and ravenously downloaded by the band's hardcore fans. Feeling betrayed by the leakae, Matthews decided to re-record these nine songs with Stephen Harris, and now comes Busted Stuff, which Matthews himself wholeheartedly approves of. With good reason, since this is his best batch of songs in some time (it's certainly a significant improvement upon Everyday). The band returns to their strengths, too, meaning long, acoustic-based songs with lots of LeRoi Moore saxophone (welcome back, LeRoi, we missed you and Boyd Tinsley on Everyday). Now, I've never heard The Lillywhite Sessions, but these versions are supposedly much more fleshed out and upbeat than those were, as the DMB effectively mix together r&b, jazz, folk, funk, and pop into their (once again) distinctive sound. Matthews sings with admirable restraint as well, largely ditching the gruff growling that has at times annoyed me in the past. Granted, the band still tends to overplay, a few of these mellow songs are only average (particularly in the album's mid-section), and even the best of them are better described as "appealing" rather than "exciting." Then again, since the band is at their best on gentle ballads such as "Where Are You Going" (the better of the two good new songs, the other being "You Never Know"), "Grace Is Gone," and "Digging A Ditch," I suppose that's only fitting. Elsewhere, the title track showcases Matthews' sexy side and the group's organic interplay, "Grey Street" sees a great groove band firing on all cylinders (as always, led by the great Carter Beauford on drums), "Big Eyed Fish" features some fine Matthews falsetto vocals, and "Bartender" provides an epic ending to an album that was a welcome return to form.
The Central Park Concert (RCA ’03) Rating: A-
There are plenty, probably too many, DMB live albums on the official market (and far more via unofficial channels), including Live in Chicago 12.19.98 at the United Center (2001), Live At Folsom Field, Boulder, Colorado (2002), and The Gorge (2004), but The Central Park Concert is the only one that seriously rivals Live At Red Rocks 8.15.95 as the quintessential Dave Matthews Band live album. I don't know if any of you have ever been to one of those big Central Park Concerts, but believe me when I tell you that these things are massive events, and around 100,000 fans allegedly attended this one. Needless to say, the band is pretty pumped up for the occasion (Dave seems genuinely humbled and in awe of the occasion), and the crowd is similarly energized. And why shouldn't they be? The Dave Matthews Band are perfectly in their element on stage, and these performances and the overall set list are hard to argue against, beginning with "Don't Drink The Water," a suitably intense and epic entrance. Other highlights include "Crush," particularly its ending jams (on which first violin and then sax take the leads), and the terrific 1-2 punch that leads off disc 2, "Dancing Nancies" and "Warehouse" (man, LeRoi Moore can really blow that sax, huh?). Disc 3 is the real highlight, however, as guest Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band, Gov't Mule) lends some soulful, scorching guitar to excellent versions of Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer" and their own "Jimi Thing" (stretched out past 16 minutes, including some scat singing and excerpts from Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth"), while an intense, rocking romp through Jimi's "All Along The Watchtower" (prefaced by a bass solo and the "Star Spangled Banner") is another standout. There are many more modest highlights as well (I mostly listed the extended numbers), including stellar renditions of "What Would You Say" and "Grey Street," among others. The album (and its accompanying DVD) aren't perfect; for one thing, it's two and a half hours long, or too damn long in other words, so you really need to set aside a block of time to fully appreciate it. Also, there are stretches of inactivity that could be tightened up, and some bum notes (flat violin, atonal sax) and annoying vocal affectations from Dave. But hey, that's about what you'd expect from a legitimate live performance, and on the whole this album is a grand celebration of the band's impressive songbook, and a fine souvenir of the special rapport that the band enjoys with both their fans and each other.
Stand Up (RCA ’05) Rating: C+
After a somber Dave Matthews solo album (Some Devil, 2003), the DMB reconvened in the studio with producer Mark Batson, resulting in the bland and overly long Stand Up. Prior to the record, Matthews participated in last year's Vote for Change Tour, so unsurprisingly this album has some preachy political sermonizing (“wake up,” “stand up,” etc.), most obviously on “Everybody Wake Up (Our Finest Hour Arrives)” and “You Might Die Trying.” However, it’s the music that's most disappointing; it’s solid and professional enough, but there’s a noticeable lack of energy and the hook-free, overly repetitive songs aren’t especially hummable, even after repeat listens (which are required for any kind of appreciation for the album at all). After a solid if not exactly inspired start (“Dreamgirl,” “Old Dirt Hill (Bring That Beat Back),” “Stand Up (For It),” and “American Baby” are among the songs most likely to last in their live repertoire), the second half of the album in particular drags, and the albums tight song constructions restrict any individual band member from shining (at their best the band usually has a loose, fun, funky feel and they aren’t above showing off by soloing, either alone or with one another). There are certain distinctive characteristics to this album that should be noted, namely the New Orleans-derived swamp groove that appears at several instances, plus Matthews increasingly raspy voice, which has a laid back, smoky tint to it that you may or may not appreciate. All in all, while listenable like usual - songs such as “Out Of My Hands” and “Stolen Away On 55th & 3rd” may be boring but they’re not offensive or anything - this album just doesn’t do it for me (at least Everyday was only 12 rather than 15 songs long), though I’m sure that their next live album will be much better than what is offered up here. Note: A high profile, very regrettable incident involving the band occurred when their tour bus driver dumped 800 pounds of human waste through the grating of a bridge over the Chicago River, drenching a boatload of passengers below!
Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (RCA ’09) Rating: B+
This is the first DMB album released after LeRoi Moore sadly died suddenly due to complications that arose after an ATV (all terrain vehicle) accident. Always a fan favorite who provided many highlights throughout the years, including on this album, Moore will not be easily replaced, but this is a talented and resilient band we're talking about here, and much like how Busted Stuff saw the band back on solid ground after the lackluster Everyday, likewise Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (GrooGrux was LeRoi's nickname) sees the band strongly rebounding after the sterile bore that was Stand Up. Matthews and company seem to pay tribute to their dear departed friend in several songs, but this is no depressing gloomfest. Rather, with the help of producer Rob Cavallo (best known for his work with Green Day) and several guest musicians (electric guitarist Tim Reynolds, saxophonist Tim Coffin, trumpet player Rashawn Ross, and banjo player Danny Barnes), the band sports their beefiest, most muscular studio sound in eons. There are mellower, mournful moments as well, some of which are quite affecting ("Baby Blue"), but the album on the whole is positive and life-affirming, despite at times corny or trite lyrics (whether sexual, socially conscious, or about Moore) that sometimes make me wince. Musically, despite their usual flaws (they can be a bit boring, their songs are sometimes overly cluttered or meander unnecessarily, Matthews' rock voice can be unconvincing, etc.), the band are back to the experimental, jam-based strengths that characterized their '90s albums. Perhaps there are more electric guitars (but plenty of acoustic guitars too) and Boyd Tinsley's role seems oddly reduced again, but by and large this album sports the classic DMB sound. Needless to say, the spirit of Moore haunts the album, and you can immediately hear his smoky sax on "Grux," a fittingly elegiac intro into "Shake Me Like A Monkey," a funky, energetic, sexually charged romp that's heavy on the horns. Other highlights include "Why I Am," whose death obsessed lyrics belie its jaunty melody and hooky chorus (that's a pretty kickass guitar solo too), and "You & Me," a mellower but also hooky (yet hopeful) song that provides a fitting finale. The bittersweet first single "Funny The Way It Is" is a grower track whose themes seem to be that life isn't fair as well as echoing Sly's well worn "different strokes for different folks" mantra, while "Spaceman" merges more love smitten and socially conscious lyrics ("Doesn't everybody deserve to have the good life? But it don't always work out") with funky rhythms that manage to be pretty mellow on the whole. In addition to the aforementioned "Baby Blue," another sedate song is "Lying In The Hands Of God," a spiritual slow jam on which sax and acoustic guitar stand out. On the more rocking front is "Squirm," a moody, intense number with a Middle Eastern vibe and a hooky horn fueled chorus, while "Alligator Pie" perhaps most exemplifies the swampy New Orleans vibe that permeates much of the album. Really, this is a consistent album that's an enjoyable, diverse listen from start to finish, and it provides a fitting testimonial to Moore while also making me think that, if they so choose, the Dave Matthews Band can continue making memorable music for many years to come.
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