Guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, violin.
It’s an intriguing line-up, typically used by art/prog types like Roxy Music (during their Eddie Jobson period) or Hawkwind (when Nik Turner and Simon House shared the stage). Unfortunately, few of those bands ever fully blended their jazzy reeds, classical strings and rock-rooted core instrumental trios into coherent wholes without subsuming one of the component pieces; when violin and sax were deployed together, they were usually assigned long open/drone roles while the rock instruments carried more conventional melody and rhythm lines.
The Dave Matthews Band (who kick off the SPAC Summer Season this Saturday with Ben Arnold) have spent six years working that odd art/prog line-up, but have done so with a strong 90’s spin–drones are out, folk/jazz jams are in; studio albums capture musical points in time, lovingly groomed tape trees fill in the spaces between the points; arty obscurity is jettisoned, heavy rotational popularity follows.
Guitarist/vocalist Dave Matthews didn’t plan it that way when the Charlottesville, VA-based band bearing his name was organized in 1990–the former bartender just wanted to make his music with guys he liked and respected.
“Well… we all just sorta met,” he explains during a phone call from Florence, Italy, where the Band are supporting their new album, Crash. “I had been a fan of Carter [Beauford, drums] for a long time; I was a friend of LeRoi [Moore, sax]; I knew Stefan [Lessard, bass] through his music teacher; I’d seen Boyd [Tinsley, violin] a few times when he came into the bar… I used to give him juice. It wasn’t me hiring anybody, it was more So do you want to work together? Yeh!.”
But wait… it’s the Dave Matthews Band, right? Isn’t the guy whose name is on the album cover the boss by default? Matthews demurs: “The name is very deceiving–it really is a democracy. I’m a figurehead in a way as a front-man, but musically the sound comes from all five of us.” It’s a sound that invites dissection, as pop, jazz, folk, rock, and blues elements continually criss-cross and overlap. Matthews himself has difficulty categorizing the sound or explaining where it came from: “Each band member brings his voice and brings the way that he plays. There are no rules, we play from our hearts. What you hear on the bass, that’s just Stefan–not Stefan trying to do something. LeRoi isn’t ever trying to be jazz guy or pop guy or soul man–he just plays the way he plays, so you’ll hear the way he reacts at a particular moment to a particular song. It’s really too hard for me to describe… so that’s why we just play it instead of talking.”
The Band has allowed people to tape its shows since its inception; the audience base built through tape exchanges fueled a strong demand for their (mostly-live) 1993 independent debut album Remember Two Things. “People tape shows anywhere if they can,” says Matthews. “But it’s cool that we have this underground trading system that I’m very into. Originally, it was our only way to get stuff out. We were doing quite well in Virginia, but we didn’t have an album out so we didn’t have any help from radio–so the whole foundation of our success was from that taping.”
RCA Records heard the buzz and signed the Band in 1994; their major label debut Under the Table and Dreaming hooked new devotees via heavy exposure to the kinetic single “What Would You Say?” and stayed near the top of the charts for much of 1995. The Band, touring as usual, took things in stride: “We didn’t expect it to be that successful, so we were surprised–but we weren’t sitting at home twiddling our thumbs saying I wonder how it did this week? We were playing every night so we’d get updates in passing; as we were running on stage someone would say It did better this week! and we’d say Oh, cool… bye!”
There may be a downside to this live-show focus and adulation–witness the critical blahs and mediocre market performance of most post-Pigpen Grateful Dead albums. Does Matthews worry that the Band’s studio albums may ultimately be rendered superfluous by concert tapes? “It hasn’t affected us yet”, he reflects, “I think our albums are very different from us live, so I hope people will like them because they’re different. I also hope that we can get better and better at making albums and then get out on the road and get better and better at playing live–so the two things stay completely independent from each other.”
One key difference comes from guitarist Tim Reynolds joining the band in the studio, but not on the road: “Tim’s been on every album we’ve done as an equal member, but when we go on the road he just doesn’t come out with us. It adds some mystery to the whole thing… whenever anyone asks me why he isn’t on the road with us I just say I dunno; it just turns out that we’re six when we’re making records but we’re five when we’re on the road.”
The Reynolds-fortified “What Would You Do?” garnered the Band its first Grammy nomination last year. “The nomination was cool,” Matthews recalls, “We all understand that it was a helluva thing, but we’re all just facing in a different direction. I’m personally glad that the honors are coming back to us… but it’s really not my department. My department is to go out a play and do the best I can musically for the people in front of me.” With that, Matthews and bandmates were off to soundcheck–and then to do the best they could to show the small group of Florentine club goers in front of them just exactly how intriguing that rarefied guitar, bass, drum, sax and violin line-up could be.