Dadrock’s back: A second coming of Dave Matthews Band
On 'Come Tomorrow', Dave Matthews, now 51, hasn't tried to shake off any of the labels music critics and others have tagged him with
My daily commute to work in Mumbai during the second half of the 1990s was a drive from Bandra to Nariman Point. There was no Bandra-Worli Sea Link those days and the drive could take at least an hour or as much as two, depending on the traffic. The car stereo was my saviour on those drives—I had one that played only cassettes, of which I had a pile on board that could be shuffled to create different playlists depending on my mood. One album that did regular duty on those commutes was Crash by Dave Matthews Band (DMB). It was the band’s third album and as soon as it had released in 1996, I found it on the shelves of Rhythm House, Mumbai’s iconic music store that no longer exists. Crash was my introduction to the band, fronted and led by Dave Matthews, a South African transplant in America, and its tracks quickly became go-to songs on the drive to and from work.
All of Crash’s dozen songs were good but some stood out, such as Crash Into Me, a soppy but weird love song whose lyrics, once you hear them carefully, can seem a bit creepy in places (think stalking and obsession!); Tripping Billies, as the name suggests, a trippy, stoner-friendly, hippie song about eating, drinking and being merry; and Proudest Monkey, a metaphorical song about the band’s life of constant touring. Crash’s appeal was atypical: its songs had few hooks or predictable melodies but the band’s ability to seamlessly traverse genres—rock, jazz, funk, and folk—and its use of the violin, saxophone, flutes and whistles, besides the conventional guitars, drums and bass, made it an endearing album.
DMB’s first album came out in 1993 but it was in 1994 with its second, Under The Table And Dreaming, that they caught the spotlight. By 2012, they’d released a total of nine albums, including 1998’s excellent Before These Crowded Streets, and 2002’s Busted Stuff. Their songs were loose and nimble but well-crafted, with Matthews’ well-modulated vocals ranging from sombre baritone to wayward highs, Boyd Tinsley’s high-speed electric violin, Carter Beauford’s tight drum beats, and LeRoi Moore’s jazz-influenced saxophone. Their music quickly found loyal fans across age groups. Older fans liked their albums for the evolved and somewhat unusual music; and younger ones dug their groove and dance vibes when they played live.
Critics quickly labelled them a “jamband", partly because of the spontaneous nature of their songs but also, I suspect, because they mixed and matched so many styles that it was an easy pigeonhole to fit them into. There was also the matter of their gigs. DMB shows were wild affairs, a hit among the college crowd and marked by boisterous dancing. In fact, in a phenomenon reminiscent of older bands such as the Grateful Dead, many felt their live shows, where the band improvised a lot and stretched their songs longer, were better than their studio efforts. Like the Dead, DMB allowed fans to record their relentless gigs and share those recordings freely. The band also released its own recordings of gigs—several of those are available on the band’s official website and other online stores.
Soon DMB’s fan base became dichotomous. Those who got hooked on their music via their studio albums were often disappointed with the atmosphere at their gigs. And those who loved their gigs and danced crazily at them, thought their studio albums pandered to an older crowd. Some derisively labelled their music “dadrock" and the jam scene’s self-appointed purists saw them as a “pop" jam band and not the real thing. For a while, DMB became a little irrelevant. Their music and songs, particularly their emotive lyrics, seemed out of sync among new, cynical and hard-nosed listeners. Old DMB fans remained die-hard and loyal but new listeners weren’t getting smitten.
Till a couple of things happened. First, there was Lady Bird (2017), Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated coming-of-age film; Crash Into Me appears on the soundtrack, not once but twice. The film helped introduce a new set of listeners to DMB’s music and it also revived interest among existing fans. Second, and more importantly, was the band’s release of a new album. Six years after their last album (Away From The World), DMB have just released their latest studio album, Come Tomorrow. Some of the 14 tracks on it are new but several have been played live by the band in recent shows and a few have been in its repertoire for more than a decade.
But despite all that, Come Tomorrow has a fresh new feeling to it. Jazz, rock and funk still inflect the band’s sound but the violin is missing on most tracks (fiddler Tinsley has left the band after an unseemly personal controversy). The trumpet and sax play integral parts in the songs but the music is a bit spare compared to earlier albums. Matthews’ vocals sound age-worn but in a curiously endearing way, and guitarist Tim Reynolds, a long-time collaborator, dazzles on the electric lead. Almost all the songs on Come Tomorrow are about love and relationships: love that is long lasting; lust; and the love inherent in parenthood. They are also about hope and optimism—which is like a breath of fresh air in these often dismal times.
On Come Tomorrow, Matthews, now 51, hasn’t tried to shake off any of the labels music critics and others have tagged him with. His lyrics are simple and straightforward and he has stuck to making music the old-fashioned way, shunning in-vogue technologies such as computer tweaks and programs and sticking to good, old-fashioned human-made sounds. It’s as if he wears the tag of “dadrock" proudly as a badge.
The Lounge list
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Idea Of You’ by Dave Matthews Band from ‘Come Tomorrow’
2. ‘Here On Out’ by Dave Matthews Band from ‘Come Tomorrow’
3. ‘Come Tomorrow’ by Dave Matthews Band from ‘Come Tomorrow’
4. ‘Crash Into Me’ by Dave Matthews Band from ‘Crash’
5. ‘Typical Situation’ by Dave Matthews Band from ‘Under The Table And Dreaming’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan