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Stay For a While: Dave Matthews Band’s Long Trip Atop Adult Alternative Songs

Billboard logo Billboard 2/18/2021 Brad Shoup

If Dave Matthews Band, the arena-headlining jam band that first formed in 1991, were a person, they’d be entering their thirties: settling into a career, finding themselves at fewer house parties. Perhaps they’ve started – or found – a family; probably they have now known real, adult loss. It is the age at which preparation rounds into experience, and as such it’s an ideal age for the Adult Alternative Songs chart. At its best, Triple A presents a youthful sense of possibility, which can be heard in the syncretic sensibility that fuels many of its hits — as well as an emotional composure that, even when it confronts despair, sees it as scalable.

That sense has animated DMB — the artist who lands atop Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Adult Alternative Artists chart — from their earliest days in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Matthews, a naturalized citizen who had left his native South Africa for good before he could be conscripted into the military, tended bar on Main Street. An aspiring songwriter and performer, he recruited two mainstays of the local jazz scene, drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist LeRoi Moore. Matthews wasn’t even sure whether the two would click with his musical sense, but from seeing them at countless fusion and post-bop sets around town, he knew they were the best support he could find. 

As it turned out, their improvisational background meshed well with Matthews’ often-fragmented songwriting. The sound arrived, after the addition of bassist Stefan Lessard (a high schooler at the time) and violinist Boyd Tinsley, who split his time between DMB and his own projects until the former’s reception on the college circuit became too heavy to ignore. Within a couple years, DMB was a jam band sensation in Virginia and beyond, attracting the attention of RCA Records — and longtime U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, who flew to New York to convince the group to ditch their original choice for producer.

Lillywhite’s bet paid off. The band’s major label debut, 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, found a massive audience beyond the expected H.O.R.D.E. demographic, an audience that took no issue with the downright Canterburian acoustic guitar/violin//saxophone/bass/drums combination. By now, the arty, abrasive approach of early college rock had ceded to a mellower strain: more optimistic, a little groovier, newly concerned with the concept of roots. The album’s big single was a hit at mainstream rock radio, rather than Triple A: the coffeeshop funker “What Would You Say” (featuring John Popper on harmonica, whose presence is highly distinctive, and Michael McDonald on backing vocals, shockingly not). On the whole, though, Dreaming is a contoured presentation of the group’s existing strengths, with Beauford laying back to put over the sawing “Ants Marching” and the suspended waltz-time balladry of “Satellite,” the group’s first Triple-A hit. 

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For their follow-up, 1996’s Crash, Lillywhite and DMB went bigger. Beauford was free to move about the cabin; Matthews and then-unofficial member Tim Reynolds (along with Beauford, a member of the Virginia fusion group Secrets) jacked their acoustic guitars into electric amps; Moore bought a baritone sax to bulk up his swath of sound. Instead of building the record from layered tracks — a standard rock-band procedure the group leaned on for Dreaming — they played live, in a circle, as much as possible. The album’s first couple singles were a jab-cross combo. “Too Much” — the band’s first Triple-A #1 — is a proto-vore anthem whose moreness is quite enough, strutting like peak ‘90s Prince when it’s not holding a hoedown on the bridge or stacking cowbells. Matthews gleefully devours the frantic text like the aspiring actor he once was.

Moore’s one-person sax section gooses the comparatively straightforward “So Much to Say,” a stoner’s rumination on the limits and origins of language. The track would bring Dave Matthews Band their only Grammy, and cemented their status as Airplay Monitor’s Triple-A act of 1996. But it was a third radio single, released in December, that broke the group fully wide: “Crash Into Me” was a lovely chamber-pop march, sung from the perspective of an obsessed voyeur. Thematically and sonically, it was a sort of alt-rock update on Van Morrison’s baroque-blues classic “Cyprus Avenue,” and Matthews’ swooning, declarative text (“I’m bare boned and crazy/For you”) likely opened more notebooks than it closed blinds. 

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”Crash” offered a path that Matthews would eagerly revisit at the turn of the century, and it remains the band’s best-known song. In classic jam-band fashion, it’s not a fan favorite. (Unlike pretty much any jam band save Black Crowes, you can split DMB’s output into two complete careers: one for the radio listeners, and one for the real heads.) Crash’s final single “Tripping Billies” was aimed at the latter. A jubilant memento mori with a proggy head, its once-were-partiers outlook and island setting – not to mention Tinsley’s fiddling – paralleled the work of a budding Kenny Chesney. 

Fully confirmed as rock stars, DMB dutifully took on the Difficult Third Album with Before These Crowded Streets, a sprawling, 70-minute collection in which every track save the intro stretched past five minutes. Such was the Band’s following, though, that “Don’t Drink the Water,” their prowling, growling excoriation of genocide, became their second Triple-A #1. (Having Béla Fleck’s banjo and Alanis Morissette’s wail didn’t hurt. Nor did the aural resemblance to Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.”) Streets was their art-rock record: unresolved ballads, double harmonic scale workouts, theatrical gnashing. 

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In the middle of this flexing was their third #1: “Stay (Wasting Time)”: a pure pop song, a carnal memory that reveled in the good times while confessing their brevity. It was a cross-format hit for them, as was the jazz-club crooner “Crush,” the group’s first official Billboard Hot 100 hit, following rule changes that allowed songs for the first time to hit the chart without being available for physical single purchase. Once again, the Van spirit was heavy, and the song beguiled both in radio edit and album-length form. Lillywhite had helped his charges construct a commercial powerhouse.

But preparations for a fourth record — now held in the group’s new Charlottesville studio — stalled. The tracks weren’t quite finding form, the vibe wasn’t right. Matthews’s consultation with Glen Ballard led to a crop of brand-new songs. If the rest of the band wasn’t quite feeling 2001’s Everyday (Beauford remarked that it felt like a Matthews/Ballard record), it was certainly easier to tackle. Hardcore fans grabbed the scrapped demos off filesharing sites; at least some of them did so while downloading “I Did It,” which was released to Napster with the band and label’s blessing. The self-referential single buzzed like a cloud of hornets and swung like “Sledgehammer,” and its guitars were unmistakably electric. “The Space Between” was a legitimate power ballad, dominated by an aerial guitar ostinato, and it became the group’s first entry in the Top 40.  

The playful, boho eclecticism of their first half-decade was giving way to the kind of stripped-down sincerity found in Triple-A hitmakers like Keane, John Mayer, and Jack Johnson. The clean lines and plaintive longing of these cross-demographic hits rang out equally well on car radios and VH1 morning programming. After Everyday, the band gave the aborted material another go. The result was 2002’s Busted Stuff, a bracing, full-bodied brew that captured so much of the proficiency and uncertainty that emerges by middle age. The title track shuffles with a hitch in its step and Matthews sends an existential falsetto to the ceiling. “Grey Street” is a heavy processional about ambition failing imagination (“I dream myself a thousand times around the world/ But I can’t get out of this place”). And yet, the Adult Alternative summit found room only for another pop ballad, the admittedly twinkling and pensive “Where Are You Going,” a brand-new composition borrowed for Adam Sandler’s Mr. Deeds remake.

Despite the presence of producer/composer Mark Batson, 2005’s Stand Up became their first set since their RCA debut not to spawn an Adult Alternative No. 1, though the national pep talk “American Baby” — strung on a plucked motif from Tinsley – became their highest charter on the Hot 100, debuting in the top 20. Even better was the soaring “Dreamgirl,” a recursive, lustful meditation driven by a ramshackle, arrhythmic acoustic lick. In his newgrown rasp, Matthews imagines a world for two, drenched in sun, occasionally punctured by “a good, good drunk”. Promotion for the song was given a boost when actor Julia Roberts — a longtime fan of the group — starred in the music video for free.

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In June of 2008, LeRoi Moore was severely injured in an ATV accident on his Charlottesville farm; he died less than two months later. His band was in the midst of recording their next album, which became a Moore tribute: Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. It was, by turns, a rollicking wake and a meditation on ephemerality. It also resulted in their first Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, a bit surprising considering how long DMB had been a force at the ticketbooth and the register. (GrooGrux was their fifth record to debut at #1; the streak currently sits at seven.) “Funny the Way It Is” was the big hit from this set, a strummy, bristling catalog of everyday injustices. “Standing on a bridge/ Watch the water passing under me,” Matthews intones, his deadpan tipping into numbness, “It must’ve been much harder when there was no bridge/ Just water.”

For 2012’s Away From the World, Steve Lillywhite reunited with a reconfigured Dave Matthews Band, with multi-instrumentalist ex-Flecktone Jeff Coffin now in the fold. The result was a more delicate, more interior set. “Mercy” preaches a sotto voce social gospel but saves its greatest comfort for the smooth-jazz outro. “If Only” just missed the Triple-A top 10, but it’s a fascinating look: a falsetto-laden soul ballad that suggests a Hi Records pass at The King of Limbs. After a few years’ recuperation on the road, DMB released Come Tomorrow in 2018. (A month before the album dropped, Boyd Tinsley was fired from the band after a sexual-misconduct lawsuit from a former collaborator became public.) Tomorrow issued three singles, each one revealing a different path. “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” celebrates new life over Edge-indebted delay. The title track rides Beaufort’s throwback martial patter towards a total surrender to the next generation. And “Again and Again” is a string-swept, soul-funk portrait of sexual codependency.

Or, perhaps, the paths intersect. From their earliest days as college-town jazz-rockers, two recurring themes have populated Dave Matthews Band’s work: the shortness of life, and its sweetness. Their ability to transmit the latter drew generations of concertgoers. The fact of the former has kept the group retooling its sound, searching, as the best improvisers do, for the next possibility. 

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