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.
"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.
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"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-