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Music: Shelter In The Storm

4 minute read
David E. Thigpen/Virginia Beach

Have you heard about the bartender who sank the Titanic? It happened on the record charts, not in the North Atlantic, and instead of an iceberg, the fatal blow was struck by Dave Matthews, a former barkeep turned leader of the Dave Matthews Band. After spending 16 weeks at No. 1, the once unsinkable Titanic soundtrack collided with Matthews’ new album, Before These Crowded Streets. When it was over, Matthews reigned in the top spot.

Now the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) is building on that achievement with the summer’s most exciting rock tour. Last week the group launched its 23-city road show with a sold-out appearance in Virginia Beach, Va., where they kept an ecstatic crowd of 20,000 on its feet despite sweltering heat. The band that once paid its dues by playing fraternity houses drew an impressively diverse coalition of college students, young suburban professionals, Lilith Fair stalwarts, fusion-music devotees and even recovering Deadheads. For fan Sarah Patejak, 18, the music’s allure was that “it’s all-purpose. You can dance to it or just chill to it.” Ryan Connor, 17, came to ponder the lyrics, which, he said, “force you to think.”

At a time when record buyers are abandoning the monotony of alternative rock in favor of the music smorgasbord of movie soundtrack albums, it is perhaps no surprise that the DMB has broken out. For years the band’s hard-to-categorize music was scorned by serious rock critics, who considered it overblown frat rock. The group is suddenly being viewed as a legitimate, deserving successor to the great American jam-band tradition of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers.

The DMB offers an alternative to alternative rock: music that is conspicuously eclectic but plainly rooted in the familiar bedrock of Americana, the blues and jazz. By introducing acoustic guitars and shifting tempos punctuated by violins, penny whistles and other flourishes of world music and jazz, the band has forged a cerebral yet commercially appealing sound, surpassing competitors like Phish. Onstage, the five band members seem more like a jazz combo than a rock band, playing tightly coordinated phrases that suddenly veer off into flights of improvisation. Matthews sings, plays guitar and projects an uncomplicated, populist charisma that dispenses with rock-star pretense.

The DMB’s ascent began seven years ago in a Charlottesville, Va., bar called Miller’s, a familiar crucible of the town’s hot-music circuit. Between serving drinks there, Matthews hatched the idea of starting his own band. He first came to the U.S. from Johannesburg at age two, returned at age 13, and then in 1986 finally settled here for good. One of the things he liked about the U.S. was that he could “listen to everything from Pete Seeger to the Jackson Five.” In 1991 he hooked up with jazz drummer Carter Beauford, saxophonist Leroi Moore, violinist Boyd Tinsley and bassist Stefan Lessard. The new band spent two long years gigging at beer-stained frat houses, molding their sound.

They also hit upon an inexpensive way to chip away at their obscurity, by encouraging fans to tape their shows. As the tapes found their way around college campuses, so did buzz on the rising new band. By 1993, on the strength of their local repute, the DMB’s self-released debut, Remember Two Things, sold 130,000 copies, mostly out of car trunks. Not long afterward, RCA Records came knocking, and the band’s popularity kept growing. Their albums Under the Table and Dreaming (1994) and Crash (1996) each sold 5 million.

Matthews’ lyrical gifts, meanwhile, were steadily developing. From the winding, elegiac Crash to the lament of The Dreaming Tree, he conjures optimism in a world beset by environmental depredations, political paralysis, self-doubt and hopelessness. Songs like Pig strip away the rage of alternative rock and replace it with reassurance. “From the dark side we can see a glow of something bright,” Matthews sings. “There’s much more than we can see/ Don’t burn the day away.”

Matthews, 31, describes his songs as “therapy,” an effort to help his listeners cope with a society “where racism is absolutely alive” and where people can be overwhelmed by a world reeling forward uncontrollably. “I try to suggest a feeling in my music–forgiveness, frustration, anxiety–but avoid the politics, and let people make up their own mind.”

Amid the social critiques of rap and alternative rock, Matthews’ music is a sanctuary that has dissolved some of the lines that separate rock fans. It is also raking in money. Those two achievements aren’t often compatible, but Matthews is one of the few rock performers who can lay claim to both.

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