Love That Dave

Critics hate Dave Matthews, but that doesn't mean you should.

"More than anything, music was a part of these protests in South Africa," he continues. "There's no such thing as a march without music behind it. African music. Something similar that Americans might be exposed to would be Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It's more of a powerful music--I don't know where people [here] would have heard it. It's huge groups of people singing, and the music is such an active part of the protest. You have your songs of praise or of mourning--folk songs that everyone knows."

Upon graduating from high school, Matthews received his notice to report for mandatory military service in the South African army. Instead, he fled the country, eventually winding up in Charlottesville. Since Moore and Beauford were regulars at Miller's, his five-year stint behind the bar there led directly to the formation of his band. "I really met everyone there for the first time," he recalls. "I had a friend who used to come in who said, 'What do you want to do?' I told him I wanted to be in a band. He said, 'Who do you want in your band?' And I said, 'LeRoi and Carter.' So I asked them, and they had their afternoons free."

Lessard, a bass prodigy still in high school at the time, had played jazz with Moore and Beauford; he quickly entered the fold, followed shortly by Tinsley. "We worked on a project that sort of took on its own life right away," Matthews notes. "By the time we realized we were doing anything, we were already doing it."

Audiences quickly warmed to the Dave Matthews Band, but record labels did not. "We didn't get any notice or reception from the industry for a long time," he says. "Not that we were really looking for it. But on the occasional times we sent a tape in to see how someone would react, it was usually received with silence."

Rather than waiting by the mailbox for the next rejection, Matthews took his music to the masses via a grueling touring schedule that, in 1990 and 1991, saw the group playing six nights a week. Before long, the quintet had built a reputation for putting on great live shows, particularly in areas of the country, like this one, that have a history of supporting acts from outside the mainstream. "Boulder and all of Colorado was huge," Matthews acknowledges. "In many ways, that's why we chose to film the video [for "What Would You Say," the band's first smash] at the Fox Theatre. It was a way of saying thanks. Everything just fell together there--the synchronicity, the fact that we'd always had a vibe there. And I think that's because it was Boulder."

Shortly after the release of "What Would You Say," the sales of Under the Table took off and Matthews became a star. It's a mantle that this self-deprecating entertainer wears a bit uneasily. He's been headlining acoustic shows with Reynolds in part because he's nostalgic for the years when he was appearing in clubs, not arenas.

"You do miss it," he insists. "I try to get in and do some theaters with the acoustic thing--I try and do that to get it back. But I also try and sort of accept whatever unfolds. It was a great time, but it's also--whether it's the devil or it's God or no one at all--it's like someone saying, 'Well, too bad, pal.' So I don't dwell on it too much. My job description has changed, so now I have to try and make an intimate setting out of some places much bigger."

Other changes may be in the offing. Matthews hints that on his followup to Crash, his lyrics may dig more deeply into his experiences in South Africa.

"I think now I'd like to stretch in a little bit different direction--maybe go a little bit darker on the next album, with not as much lightness," he reveals. Still, his legions of fans needn't worry about a complete revamping. "There'll be a little lightness in there," he adds. "Because we get the giggles--and so if we get the giggles, then there's got to be a light song that comes out of that."

In other words, Matthews wants to provide people with something strong, followed by a tasty chaser. Obviously, his bartending background is paying off again.

American Music Festival, with Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Barenaked Ladies, Shawn Colvin, Matthew Sweet and Agents of Good Roots. 10:30 a.m. Sunday, July 13, Winter Park Ski Area, $30, 830-

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