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Dave Matthews Band: Musically Speaking

by Tom Moon on January 09, 2017
Today marks Dave Matthews' 50th birthday. To honor fifty years of the DMB bandleader, we'll be celebrating his work all week long beginning with our March 2013 cover story on the band shortly after the release of their ninth album Away From the World

Dave Matthews’ dressing room backstage at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center has the look of a creative hive. There’s an electric piano set up in the corner, amp humming. A sketchbook sits on the table, charcoal pencils nearby. The trusty acoustic guitar waits on a stand. There’s a sound system and on top of the rolling wardrobe case, with neatly hung shirts inside, a laptop chirps as its incoming emails arrive.

Ignoring it, Matthews sips his tea and monitors developments in the outside world on his smartphone. Some days Matthews uses this room for only a few minutes, but like many things within the DMB universe, it’s set up for the moment when inspiration strikes–he’s been known to record song ideas seconds before starting a show. As we exchange hellos, the flicker of an incoming text draws his eye. In one fluid motion, he looks, then casually flips the phone over. No thanks. He apologizes and vows to ignore the phone.

Besides, in a little while, when he goes to work, Matthews will come face to face with the awesome distracting power of the smartphone. The room outside this door will soon fill up with 20,000 enthusiastic people whose idea of enjoying live music now includes capturing bits of it on video, texting reactions to friends and updating their statuses minute by minute on Facebook. House lights will dim, and Matthews will walk into the familiar head-rush roar of an anticipating crowd. But the first thing he’ll see are faces illuminated from below in halos of technology blue, thumb-typing at breakneck speed, snagging a fix from a habit-forming lifeline of a device.

I ask him what that’s like. He utters one of those “funny the way the world is” sighs. For all I know, the Frontman Committee of the Arena Rock Trade Association has been discussing this very issue. For all I know, it could be the thing he fears the most: He’s got a formidable band, a nimble production crew and 100 killer songs at the ready, but all that might not be enough to counter the next almighty tweet.

“We’re becoming more and more of an impatient society,” Matthews says flatly, like he’s just observing, not judging. “We want the instant fix and we will find a way to get it. All of us–the band and the crew–have noticed in the last few years how people are using their phones during the shows more. I’m not sure if it takes away from the experience we’re trying to create. But I know, from my own life, that the high-speed world can be really distracting. It can prevent you from being fully in the moment.” With this band, there is nothing more important than being in the moment.
I flash back to a few nights earlier, when Matthews and his six-piece band played First Mariner Arena in Baltimore, the smallest venue on the winter tour. They opened with “Seek Up,” from their 1993 debut album Remember Two Things, and took their sweet time launching it. Carter Beauford, the drummer, started the rhythm–a loping triple-meter pulse with distinct African roots–which guitarist Tim Reynolds then magnified with a brilliant arpeggiated matrix on electric guitar.

For a few minutes, as the Baltimore faithful warmed up with some ritual hollering, the groove was incredibly light, almost fragile. And riveting. The horns entered, Beauford greeting them with rapid-fire complications and syncopations. Nobody onstage was in a hurry and after a beautifully weepy violin solo from Boyd Tinsley, Matthews approached the microphone, looking ready to kick things into the next gear. But then, without breaking his rhythm guitar pattern, he veered away–as if he was enjoying the way his band was cruising and didn’t want to push things forward too quickly. That triggered another extended foray and by the time Matthews began singing, every living soul in the place was keyed up. The band erupted. The house responded with its own, even louder eruption. Liftoff.

The entire introductory adventure took about ten minutes. It went by in a flash and watching it unfold, you wondered about all the research on the modern music consumer–that fickle soul who allegedly demands instant gratification, thinks his playlist rules and has been trained not to waste a precious second on anything he doesn’t love right away. The vast majority of this crowd was all-in, riding the slaloms carved by a band that wasn’t doing anything terribly special to “entertain,” through an epic journey that wasn’t piledriver rock or skronky jazz or some crossbreed. For 10 minutes. That’s a long damn time to be playing instrumental music in a hockey rink. There’s high boredom potential, at least among the designated-driver girlfriends in the crowd, who maybe tolerate Dave but also have a sweet spot for Carly Rae Jepsen. Most arena acts fit two fully tricked-out production number hits into the span of that one intro.

I mention this to Matthews in Philadelphia as we’re talking about the getting and keeping of attention. “I read all the stuff about how people don’t care about anything that’s long-form or substantial anymore, and I get it, I’m aware of it in my own life,” Matthews says. “But I think we buck that trend, in a way. What we do is not instant. Our music requires a bit of effort on the part of the listener. I think people who come to our shows know that we are committed to pursuing some new something when we play–for us, a show is an invitation to come be a part of this thing we’re going to explore together. That seems to encourage a sense of investment in what we’re doing or a measure of patience–because it’s pretty obvious this isn’t an autopilot situation. We might spin out spectacularly… [but] no matter what happens, it’s not going to be the same as the last time. Or the night before.”

It’s an hour before showtime in Baltimore and Carter Beauford is sitting on his tranquil bus, snapping out a dastardly polyrhythm on his things. He’s got gloves on, sticks in hand, and at first, it seems like our interview might distract him from what’s obviously part of his warm-up routine. I ask him what explains the enduring success of this band, which has been playing live for more than 20 years. He doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s really just this: When we play, we try to turn the music into a living thing.”

Like one of his heroes, the great jazz drummer Max Roach, Beauford believes music is best appreciated as a story–an organic narrative that can, and maybe should, change at any second.

“I see so many bands doing their music just like the record,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Don’t tell the story the same way every time. Give it some different punctuation.’”

A good night, he continues, is not when he and everyone onstage and on the production team executes flawlessly. Instead, a night is successful when they go tearing off and wind up someplace they’ve never visited before. This is not easy, he adds. It requires an enormous openness, a receptivity to the ideas of others, and (not least) the technical facility necessary to react to anything.

“There are nights you struggle with every note and that can lead to panic,” he admits. “If you’re not right there, physically or mentally, you could have a night where you can’t get the landing gear up. The music will kick your butt from note one.”

So Beauford does what he can in advance. Stretching. Breathing. Pummeling his extremities. I observe that the rhythm he’s playing, as precise as it is, can hardly be described as a physical “warm-up.” After all, he’s barely moving. The drummer flashes the smile of a guru who’s just been handed a teaching opportunity.

“That’s what you’d think!” he cackles. “But here’s the paradox: The mechanics are not just to loosen up. They’re for the purpose of getting my head into it. So that when we start, I’m not thinking drums. I’m focusing on the musical paintings we’re creating.”
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