I had so much fun writing my Through the Years feature on Alanis Morissette that I decided to comb through my music collection for other bands that I could give this treatment to. The Dave Matthews Band was one of the first to come to mind, as they’ve been around since the early nineties and have compiled many hits along the way. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
I feel a sort of kinship with DMB, as they formed in Charlottesville, VA, the town I went to college in. Dave Matthews was working at a bartender at Miller’s, which is still the nexus of the jazz scene there. Matthews became friends with a lawyer named Ross Hoffman, who hoped he would record demos of some songs that he had written, and find other artists to perform with him. Matthews obliged, and Hoffman introduced him to drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist LeRoi Moore. Matthews would later recall in interviews how he didn’t recruit them into the band because he really wanted those instruments, but rather because they blew him away with their skill. John D’earth, who taught music at the Tandem Friends School in Charlottesville, introduced them to bassist Stefan Lessard, who was only 15 when he laid down his first tracks. Violinist Boyd Tinsley rounded out the band, though he didn’t join until 1992.
The band’s first full-length album was Remember Two Things, released in 1993. This was sort of a “proof of concept” type album, with the band trying to figure out exactly how to present themselves to audiences. Many bands claim to be unique, and to “have their own sound,” but DMB truly lived this out from the beginning. Their style is a fusion of jazz, rock, roots/folk music, bluegrass, and other genres that combine to form a slurry of ear candy. Several of the songs on this album would be re-recorded for later releases once the band had hit its stride in the music mainstream, and some of the others, especially “The Song That Jane Likes,” remain staples of their shows. The presence of six live recordings on this album would foreshadow DMB’s absurdly prolific compilation of live albums over the years. To date, they have released sixty of them!
It didn’t take the band too long to crack the mainstream, which was accomplished with their second album, Under the Table and Dreaming (1994). In a way, this isn’t a huge surprise, as this album contains some of the band’s most radio-friendly and danceable songs. The third single, “Ants Marching,” proved to be the launching point for this one, and it remains one of the band’s best songs. UTTAD also includes fan favorite, “Warehouse,” which refers to a building in Charlottesville that they used to perform on top of. If you’ve been to their live shows, you know that they perform this song somewhat differently now than when they originally recorded it, with extra rests for audience cheers. The version on this album can sound a little odd the first time you hear it if that’s the case, as it’s a little slower and more drawn-out.
Album no. 3, Crash (1996), featured the band drifting a little further from their radio-friendly style, though they did make sure to throw “Crash Into Me” and “So Much to Say” in there to please DJs. Crash also features several much longer songs where the band begins to earn its “jam band” reputation, further reinforced in their live shows. Several songs can go on for ten or even fifteen minutes, once they decide to work some improvisation into their set. This is also reflected in the fact that on many of their albums are a collection of songs that are treated as separate entities, frequently without common threads running through them all. While it contains several good tracks, Crash is one of their albums that didn’t capture my attention from start to finish in the same way that the previous album did. I feel like the band was still rounding into form here, and had more up their collective sleeves.
Sure enough, Before These Crowded Streets (1998) is often hailed as the band’s best album, possibly because it’s one of their “artsiest.” There’s very little attention paid to mainstream appeal here, with the possible exception of “Stay (Wasting Time).” Some of the band’s experiments succeed, such as “The Last Stop,” which has many interesting sounds but also flows into a catchy and well-executed song. But some of them fail, such as “Halloween,” probably one of my least favorite studio recordings they’ve ever done. The song’s dissonant instrumental parts aren’t all that bad on their own, but they’re supported by a weird growling vocal style from Matthews that dissolves into unintelligibility by the time the song ends. This album features a cameo from none other than Alanis Morissette, who contributes backing vocals in “Don’t Drink the Water” and “Spoon.” John D’earth also returned to lay down some trumpet tracks.
Hardcore fans may hate me for this, but I think DMB’s next album, Everyday (2001) is one of their strongest. The album is a complete 180-degree turn back into mainstream land, featuring none of the 6-8 minute epics heard on previous albums. Violinist Boyd Tinsley is also much less of a presence on this album than on past ones, which in my opinion is its main weakness. “I Did It” still indulges the band’s weirder side, while “The Space Between” has many poignant moments. But the runaway winner for best track on Everyday is “Fool to Think,” with a hypnotic guitar part in the chorus that climaxes in Dave’s “…take me hoooooooooome,” wail. The lyrics are also eminently relatable.
While I love Everyday, my all-time favorite album of theirs might be Busted Stuff (2002), which might be described as a happy medium between the styles of Before These Crowded Streets and Everyday. The majority of these songs were initially recorded in sessions with producer Steve Lillywhite for an album that was later abandoned. “Where Are You Going?” reminds me a lot of the poignancy of “The Space Between,” as does “Grace Is Gone.” For some reason, my favorite DMB songs all seem to be the ones that are wistful and sad. Same with “Grey Street,” which has what I believe to be the best riff they’ve ever written. It also continues the band’s exploration of interesting and atypical themes, having been inspired by the life of poet Anne Sexton.
Stand Up (2005) featured the debut of the band’s “Fire Dancer” logo that Matthews drew himself when a fan asked him to show what he saw when he looked out onto the crowds during a show. Stand Up largely failed to carry over the momentum from the band’s previous three albums, ending what I think of as their peak years. “American Baby” was a good song meant to urge Americans not to lose their culture in the midst of political and social tumult of the era. My favorite tracks on this are probably the upbeat “Louisiana Bayou” and “You Might Die Trying.” The latter song was used as an opener to my first DMB live show, and I think it worked well.
The band took another extended studio hiatus before releasing Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (2009), the last album to feature saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died of complications stemming from an ATV crash in 2008 and was replaced by Jeff Coffin. The “GrooGrux King” part of the album is a tribute to Moore. Like Stand Up, this album has a few standouts, notably “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” “You & Me,” and “Funny the Way It Is,” but isn’t quite to the level of the band’s best albums. This one probably most resembles the style of Everyday, with its shorter songs and more easily digestible fare.
Finally, we come to Away From the World (2012), which might actually be my least favorite DMB album, mostly because of a lack of truly standout songs. None of the songs on here really measure up to past hits. The album did feature some political overtones that made the lyrics interesting, especially in the lead single, “Mercy.” The problem with building such a stellar career is that an average-to-good album can sometimes feel like a bit of a letdown, as this one did. I will be interested to see what direction the band goes in their next record, and whether we’ll see more of their jam-band identity or more of their pop sensibilities.