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Under the Table at 20: Revisiting Dave Matthews Band’s Most Important Record

by Matt Norlander on September 26, 2014

Saturday marks exactly two decades since Dave Matthews Band released its breakout, image-conjuring/creatively titled major-label debut, Under the Table and Dreaming. Yes, the classic blue-and-purply album cover showing a Wave Swinger; the record which includes “What Would You Say,” “Ants Marching” and “Satellite” is now 20 years old. Twenty. This is indisputable evidence you are much older than you’d wish to be.

Also, you really miss college.

I find something about this occasion surprising. Have you heard anything about UTTAD’s anniversary? Not really, right? Nothing substantial from the band or its management. With the practically mandatory 1990s nostalgia-induced remembrances of records released a score ago, there hasn’t been much reflection on the undeniable breakthrough and genre-shifting success of one of the biggest American “rock” outfits ever. Outside of this piece, it seems there’s a noticeable lack of rose-colored lookbacks at what it means for DMB to arrive the way they did; to sell more than 2 million albums almost out of nowhere in less than a year’s time; to do it with unconventional methods toward publicity; to bloom a fan base, and keep it, in that tried and true, bottom-up way.

To date, there haven’t been inklings of reissues, remixes, box sets or new vinyl pressings. (In a way, this is refreshing.) The Dave Matthews Band’s red-letter day is certainly nothing like what Oasis, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Weezer, Outkast, Green Day, Wu-Tang Clan and others have been lauded with regarding their noteworthy album vicennials in recent months/years.

Yet DMB has outsold all those acts and is arguably occupying the largest American fan base of any of them, evidenced by the like-clockwork touring revenue the group brings in every friggin’ year. They do this despite offering average ticket prices that are much cheaper than other annual touring breadwinners who cluster the top of Pollstar’s lists. The playful irony here is, while plenty would say few “alternative” bands from that era evoke more of a 1990s aura than DMB (and we know you’re still out there, Gin Blossoms and Spin Doctors), the truth is, Dave and Co. monetarily hit their prime a decade later. DMB earned more money touring in the aughts than anyone: $530 million, which, given the economy, is likely a record for any artist in any decade.

And in 2014, the tours and money and fans keep on. DMB is still relevant to the modern music landscape, they just happen to singularly occupy fairly large, previously unowned territory.

Despite the band continuing to tour, record a studio record every few years and put live albums up for purchase/download with the turning of each season, for whatever reason, it long ago stopped being cool to overtly like -- or even hate -- Dave Matthews Band. (Community viewers will note the show made reference to this notion last season.) The band’s fans aren’t yet old enough to claim seniority status like Springsteen’s equally devoted concert-counting vets. The group doesn’t take drastic artistic chances/isn’t the critical darlings like a Radiohead. They aren’t as market-savvy or as hellbent on publicity as a U2 or a Coldplay. Even Pearl Jam, who once was synonymous with music-purist instincts, seems to have been more aggressive in presenting their music and image with their past two record releases than DMB.

Still, the band’s carefully cultivated and absolutely dedicated, massive fan base -- as well as all the other ever-young high school-age bros who continue to pass down the regrettable tradition of showing up to shows just to stupefy themselves in the parking lots of amphitheaters across the country -- show no signs of diminishing. The machine keeps churning, leading the band to amass millions of records sold and setting unprecedented album-sales records in the process.

Putting that in context, it’s clear Sept. 27, 1994, is a significant date for American music. It signaled the arrival of a band comprised of a lineup unlike anything that had ever been signed to a major label: a crowd-pleasing, goofy-yet-physical freak of a black violin player; a mysterious sax maestro; a shy teenager on bass who looked like he lived in the band van; a lanky South African frontman who didn’t play electric guitar and preferred to wear pajama pants on national television; and the oldest guy in the band, oh by the way, would prove to be one of the most dynamic and talented drummers in the history of popular music.

So that seems like something worth reflecting on.

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