Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Leroi Moore died last summer, but his spirit soars over “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” the band’s first CD since 2005’s “Stand Up.”
Moore — the GrooGrux King — is here from the start as “Big Whiskey” opens with a lonesome solo by the saxophonist. His presence remains throughout the project as Matthews finds himself contemplating life and death, mortality and the search for grace in manners big and small.
Of course, any such discussion by Matthews has to include sex. Matthews has always done carnal pleasures well. “Crash into Me’s” line ‘Hike up your skirt a little more/ show the world to me” remains one of the slyest and sexiest lines in modern music. The songs on “Big Whiskey” are no exception.
Matthews visits that terrain again on the vibrant, funky time-shifting “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” which opens with an almost Prince-like, primal yelp and includes a none-too-subtle reference to his preference for giving oral sex (in this case, in a clever way that rhymes with jelly).
On “Spaceman,” Matthews repeatedly sings in a sensual growl, “I love the way you move,” even while playing the slightly recalcitrant lover who “might get lost, but I get home for dinner.”
There is also lush romance. On the gently rhythmic “Lying in the Hands of God,” which, with its weaving horn line sounds like something of a Sting album, Matthews leaves the sermons for others, as he compares being with his lover to being in God’s arms. On “You and Me,” Matthews boasts that “when the kids are old enough, we’re going to teach them to fly” in a song so naively sweet, it seems as if it should have been written by a wildly optimistic 22-year-old boy, not a 42-year old man…and that’s a good thing. If these songs aren’t about Matthews’ wife, he’s got a lot of explaining to do.
But Moore — and death –are Matthews’ constant companions on “Big Whiskey,” informing the album, but also enhancing it. We should all be so lucky as to get such a jubilant send-off as Matthews gives Moore on “Why I Am.” Matthews still very much feels Moore’s presence wrapped around him, but wonders if they’ll be reunited in the next life.
The spiritual world is also on the band’s mind on “Dive In,” where Matthews pleas that everything will be okay as long as “I just stay on my knees” as he seeks solace in a crumbling world.
The album’s most beautiful track, “My Baby Blue,” finds Matthews, his voice cracking and worn, singing “When you wake, you will fly away holding tight to the legs of all your angels / Good bye.”
Working with producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls) proves to be a smart move. Cavallo reins in the band’s inherent noodling that makes its live shows so invigorating but that can stop a studio album in its tracks. Oddly, though, by doing so, he still captures the immediacy of their live shows. In many ways, “Big Whiskey” has the energy of a DMB show more so than any previous studio effort-and helps contract the often-wide chasm between the band’s concerts and recordings. Drummer Carter Beauford, violinist Boyd Tinsley and bassist Stefan Lessard sound bright and sharp here, bringing Matthews’ vision to life. Throughout, there is the feel of band mates playing together who simply speak each other’s language.
Nowhere is this more so than on the thick “Squirm,” set to a “Kashmir”-like, dense, building groove as the strings collide with the guitars in a cacophonous explosion. The swampy “Alligator Pie” also allows the band to stretch out as it conjures up the bayou through its loose-limbed, shape-shifting rhythms. You can almost see Moore joining in the parade that links this life to the next.