I started high school in the mid-1990s — right around the time when an acoustic, jam-happy, genre-defying group called Dave Matthews Band was still considered a cult act.
Their music had infectious rhythm, striking lyrics, and more song structure than other groups labeled “jam bands.” Like many budding musicians in my school, I mimicked their songs and felt as of they were my own little, personal band — one that only a select few worshiped. I even remember being so surprised that old Camelot Music in my local mall had a DMB T-shirt on the rack. Why would a major record store carry apparel for a band that wasn’t Korn? I bought it, and wore it to school, secretly thinking I was hip.
Then, in 2000, Dave & Co. fired their producer, put out an uber-pop record, started playing stadiums — and, all of a sudden, every girl and guy in a polo shirt was singing along to ‘The Space Between.’
Over the last 10 years, DMB has become the opposite of what I used to love. Dave suddenly seemed like an unsure and awkward lyricist. Their songs sounded forced. The band seemed apathetic. And all they appeared to do was tour and tour and tour for an ever-growing audience of people who didn’t appreciate the music, man.
I was ready to give up on a group that used to thrill me.
Last year, though, I heard they were about to release a new album: Big Whiskey & The GrooGrux King. I hated their previous album, 2005’s Stand Up — with its stilted sub-hip-hop experiments and wooden songwriting. I wasn’t optimistic this one was going to sparkle, either.
But I was going to give them one last shot. If Big Whiskey blew, my DMB days were done.
Then, I pressed play. The album starts liltingly — with a tiny bit of saxophone from LeRoi Moore, the founding member who died during the making of the record. Then, a host of horns burst in. A sexed-up Dave oozes charm. The rhythms are engulfing. ‘Shake Me Like A Monkey’? That’s how you start an album.
The rest of the record is just as good. The writing is crisp — fleshed out with complete, well-thought-out songs like the gorgeous ‘Lying In The Hands Of God,’ the fun ‘Alligator Pie,’ the thumping ‘Time Bomb.’ The lyrics — 80 percent of the time — are natural. Dave sounds happy, confident again. It’s easily DMB’s best album since the one that started it all for me: 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets — still one of the most overlooked, most well-made records of the last 25 years.
Of course, the production this time is still too slick. I miss how Steve Lillywhite, who helmed DMB’s first three classic albums, made them sound organic. Lately, their records have sounded like an auto-tuned version of Dave Matthews Band.
But that’s a small complaint. Big Whiskey bristles with color and joy.
And I feel relieved. I don’t have to give up on a band that means so much to me.
P.S. — I write this a week after Taylor Swift’s Fearless beat Big Whiskey for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. Which is a shame.
I fully expected the Recording Academy to fall for the record that notonly rejuvenated DMB but has the heart-tugging backstory of being released in the wake of Moore’s death. But they went for the best-selling album of the year instead of the year’s best.