By Noah Hubbell
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Whether you love him or loathe him, you can't deny that South Africa-born Dave Matthews has become one of the most popular performers in contemporary music, inspiring the sort of fanatical support that has led to comparisons of his self-named band with the grandfather of all cult acts, the Grateful Dead. But as recently as the early Nineties, Matthews had another occupation: He pulled the taps at Miller's, a modest club in Charlottesville, Virginia. And although he has served up more hit singles than drinks of late, he believes that his bartending gig was good training for his present line of work. As he puts it, "You're constantly in front of people, and you're performing all the time for money."
Of course, Matthews has earned bigger tips for making multi-platinum albums such as 1994's Under the Table and Dreaming and last year's Crash than he ever did for mixing, say, Harvey Wallbangers and Buttery Nipples. But his success has come with a hefty price tag. Although boosters heap praise upon the Dave Matthews Band (which includes violinist Boyd Tinsley, saxophonist LeRoi Moore, bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford) and Matthews's acoustic collaborations with longtime friend Tim Reynolds, most music reviewers have turned on the guitarist with a vehemence that's usually reserved for the Kennedy family. Various theories have arisen about what's fueled this backlash (see sidebar below ), but whatever the real cause, there's no question that Matthews has become a critical scapegoat.
Matthews jokes that the thick skin bartenders develop over the course of their dealings with drunks, barflies and characters who become more colorful when they're inebriated helps him deal with such rebukes. But press him a little and he'll concede that he is sometimes frustrated by the notices he's received. "I don't understand the attack thing," he says. "I don't know how somebody who doesn't do it could suggest that there's some sort of right or wrong way to do anything--especially something creative."
Setting aside this argument, the fact remains that Matthews's music is considerably more worthy than most of his detractors will admit. Far from being a one-dimensional neo-hippie unit, the Dave Matthews Band is an intriguing collective that benefits from the varied influences of its members. The combination of Matthews's African-folk sensibilities, Tinsley's distinctly Southern way with a violin and the jazzy tastes of Beauford, Moore and Lessard results in a sound that's exotic yet pop-based--a twist on tradition that allows the instrumentalists to experiment without damning them to the deadly (from a commercial standpoint) worldbeat category.
These ingredients have little in common with those offered up by the Grateful Dead over the years, but that hasn't stopped naysayers from accusing the outfit of copying Jerry Garcia and company for fun and profit. Matthews claims to be puzzled by these allegations. "A lot of people put us there [with the Dead], but I don't get it--initially from the perspective that none of us went to Dead shows except the three we played at. At the point in my life when I probably would have been listening to them--if I had been here--I was in South Africa, so I just didn't. Not necessarily by choice, but by circumstance."
So is the Matthews-Dead comparison completely untenable? Not quite. Matthews's rhythmic approach does display some elements associated with the Dead; the feel is similar in that the music often floats atop a strummed acoustic guitar, as is the case with so many Dead tunes. But only a lazy listener would imply that there aren't vast differences between the combos. Unlike the performers in Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors and Phish, to name three outfits that exhibit more Dead-like characteristics than does Matthews's band, the musicians rarely stray off into tangential, long-winded solos that merely groove along, masquerading as music. Rather, they opt for intricately cross-timed parts and wide octave jumps on "Satellite," violin and saxophone counter-melodies on "Too Much" and "Ants Marching," and an odd, shifting meter and strange tempo on "Dancing Nannies." Even lyrical themes differ drastically from both the psychedelic, good-time anthems of the Dead and the cleverly nonsensical rhymes preferred by Phish. Matthews frequently explores the mundane, workaday world, delves into issues of mortality, gloomily wishes for happiness and love and, in "Cry Freedom," grapples with the evils of apartheid.
This last cut is hardly the only one on which Matthews's South African roots can be found. His unusual vocal phrasing and his frequent use of tribal beats have everything to do with the time he spent there. During his childhood, Matthews divided his time between South Africa, England and the U.S.; the first music he remembers hearing was by the Jackson Five, but his formative years were spent in Johannesburg falling in love with the work of Hugh Masekela, King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita and the pioneers of African jazz. But it was the "workers' songs" he was exposed to at numerous anti-apartheid rallies that had the largest impact on Matthews.
"There was a huge struggle in South Africa when I was growing up--the sort that Americans our age have never been exposed to," he points out. "I was never a supporter of apartheid in my life--I didn't grow up in a family that supported it--so we were always consciously opposed to it. I wasn't risking my skin, spare maybe a little tear gas, but certainly I was seeing a movement toward something important. If there was a march against the municipal elections, for instance, then I would march for it.