What Would You Say (To A Critical Re-Evaluation Of Dave Matthews)

Getty Image

The first and only time I went to a Dave Matthews Band concert was in 2015. It was a stop at the since-demolished Irvine Meadows Amphitheater in Orange County, California, an appearance that was basically a yearly tradition for the formerly Virginia-based band. In fact, most Dave Matthews summer ventures are yearly traditions. When the outfit took a year off in 2011 after a whopping 20 years of consecutive runs, fans didn’t take too kindly the newfound gaps in their calendar. And while this concert had its standout moments, including a surprise appearance from legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, what I’ll remember most are the people who make his shows an annual ceremony.

I’ll probably never live down abandoning my friend in our seats as a neighboring superfan tirelessly recounted to us the dozens of times he’d previously seen the band, the songs he most wanted to hear, and how his son was named Carter after the group’s longtime percussionist Carter Beauford. During my escape to the venue’s concourse, I witnessed a set of parents urging their tiny child to walk for the first time ever, eager to have a story about their kid’s first steps being at a Dave Matthews Band concert. For the uninitiated, this level of fandom was a culture shock, not only in the fervency of it all, but in how eager everyone was to share it with strangers.

At a Dave Matthews Band concert, there are no strangers.

So what took me so long to see this fairly innocuous group of talented jam rockers, who’ve been wildly successful since their 1994 major label debut, Under The Table And Dreaming? Well, a big part of it was the critical reviling of the band that took place for almost their entire existence. When I was in high school in the late ’90s, I read an article in the local OC Weekly that was literally titled “Dave Matthews Band Killed My Dog,” and a line etched itself forever into my consciousness. Summarizing, the piece noted that Dave Matthews was from both South Africa and Charlottesville, Virginia, two of the most racist places on earth, yet he managed to whitewash and water down the music of both cultures.

As stinging as this sounds, it doesn’t read true two decades later. Even when facing print articles that were basically just personally-charged takedowns, Matthews’ sound and style have become something far more singular than critics would like to admit, with elements of jazz, adult alternative, and roots rock all shaken together like Boggle cubes. He’s found success on alt radio, on VH1, and, most memorably, as a touring juggernaut, never seeming discontent in his level of success or compromising his aesthetic to increase his reach. He’s got chops and he’s got songs, and in a world where artists reach far for something, anything, to make themselves standout, he’s crafted an identity that humbly and lovingly has become known as just “Dave.”

This year, there is the vague sense that the tide could be turning. Take a site like Pitchfork, who’ve determined it unnecessary to review any Dave Matthews Band album ever, but in the last few months, have started to soften their stance — once in a news story about a sexual harassment lawsuit again the group’s electric violinist Boyd Tinsley who has since been dismissed from the band, once praising the iconic usage of the band’s “Crash Into Me” in the film Lady Bird. That latter film, released to critical adoration last year, saw the creepily swoony ballad resonate with a teenager who was free to deviate from the common conception of cool. It was a time that, in honesty, felt a lot like today.

Then there was David Marchese’s recent deep-dive with Matthews for Vulture. In his typically masterful style, Marchese got Matthews to reflect on his own detractors, which Matthews seemed very comfortable with. “Without question — and some express it with more vinegar than others — there are people who truly don’t like my band,” Matthews admitted, adding, “I think a lot of them just go, ‘I hate the Dave Matthews band’ because they saw someone they didn’t like in one of our T-shirts.”

This is, of course, an oversimplification, but Matthews would later delve further into the phenomenon of being loathed and critically condemned, saying he didn’t understand why people couldn’t like Nirvana or Pearl Jam and his band, when he, in fact, was also a fan of those bands. In an interview where he confidently shouts out listening to both alt-J and Yes, he wound up landing on a Miles Davis quote: “Good music is good music.”

You see that kind of philosophy in a recent Noisey piece where Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson listens to Under The Table And Dreaming for the first time, having no real experience with the band. In the piece, writer Josh Terry also notes that a critical softening or re-evaluation could be in the pipeline, and Nielson almost works as a crash test dummy for the theory.

Reacting to the jazz roots, the complex arrangments, and the proggy DNA, Nielson is through the roof in his approval. And seeing someone react to the music without being held back by a long-told narrative only boosts the idea that criticism of the band has been grandfathered in and isn’t inherent to their nature. Maybe, Dave Matthews Band is actually good.

The sidelining of DMB from critical conversations in not something original to just this group. The same could be said for Counting Crows, Blues Traveler, Hootie And The Blowfish, and loads of other ’90s rock artists with a sensitive side. The big difference is that Dave Matthews’ success has extended into the decades that have followed, including six No. 1 albums and a Grammy award on 12 nominations. While more suited for VH1, Matthews was invited to perform on the VMAs in 1998, and though he claims little overlap between his fans and Kurt Cobain’s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear “Ants Marching” next to “Heart Shaped Box” on the radio.

But the late ’90s grew increasingly unkind to sensitive rock with the rise of nu metal, and soon Matthews became more of a fixture on dorm room walls than on mainstream music outlets. Sure, Matthews might not have fit comfortably in college rock, either, but at least in those atmospheres, particularly in places where weed and beer were consumed faithfully, Matthews’ good vibes and extended tunes could exist inside their own little bubble.

Making my way through Matthews’ catalog with fresh ears, the biggest obstacle isn’t in the musicianship or the songwriting — it’s in the bloat. The band’s follow-up to Under The Table And Dreaming, 1996’s Crash, offers up 12 songs with not a single one coming in at under four minutes, and nine of the cuts rising above five minutes in length. It’s a method of songwriting that is unforgiving unless the listener is completely on board, with his songs typically extending to feature Tinsley’s smooth fiddle or the late LeRoi Moore’s shadowy saxophone. The music feels firmly planted in its time and place, but there are also enough unexpected left turns that find Matthews actually finding some communion with the other music from his era.

“Rhyme & Reason” sees Matthews issuing an uncanny guttural wail that would be perfect for a music video directed by McG, while “Don’t Drink The Water” traverses from a Southern backyard barbeque to something foreboding and sinister, fitting for the arenas the band was playing at the time. Often in a Dave Matthews song, there is something to love and something to hate, and just like the singer’s wild eyes and indecipherable yelps, it demands that you accept all of it exactly as it presents itself.

And there was always the knowledge that Matthews could pepper his output with an occasional stonecold classic. Though “Ants Marching” and “What Would You Say” were his biggest commercial hits from Under The Table And Dreaming, the delicate prance of “Satellite” has turned into something much more elegant and longlasting. 1998’s “Crush” is equally iconic, brushing closer to a smokey jazz club than ever before and slowly blasting off into the cosmos from that most unexpected launch pad. And then there’s 2001’s “The Space Between,” which following “Crash Into Me,” establishes the wistful, woozy, romantic Matthews as the most rich and fulfilling version of himself. It might undercut the band’s reputation as a party band, but in this case, the exceptions are often better than the rules.

On Friday, Dave Matthews Band will release their ninth album, Come Tomorrow. And like the wealth of his catalog, there are elements that land on both sides of the quality fence with the advance singles he’s offered up. On “Again And Again,” Matthews sounds worn and weary, his voice dry between whiskey pulls and sounding every bit the 51 years he’s been on earth. It suits him and gives the song character that it might have shrugged off 25 years earlier.

The far more goofily titled “Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)” is surprisingly straight-faced, towering high as Matthews shows that he can still sing into the expanse and provide big cathartic moments to his fans. An electric guitar solo sits where a violin might have in years past, but Matthews songwriting on these two tracks benefit from the directness. And if you include the egg-shaking, elastic blues of “That Girl Is You” that sounds like a store-brand version of Alabama Shakes, none of the three songs crack the five-minute mark. Brevity has been a friend to Matthews since 2002’s Busted Stuff, and its a welcome sight in 2018.

Whether Dave Matthews new music — or even his old music — gets the shake its long deserved will be answered in the coming days. Sure, Spotify makes it hard as all hell to find the studio albums as they are hidden between an endless stream of live recordings, but the effort is worth the reward. These concerts might inspire baby names and staged narratives, but the songs are the fuel that keeps the fire burning.

When I was in college, despite thinking myself handily too cool to give Dave Matthews the time of day, his faithful would always cite his live recordings with Tim Reynolds as the material that could convert the unbelievers. And indeed, those records would strip down every Matthews jam session to its bare-boned essentials, revealing that the beating heart behind his compositions wasn’t how they sounded while dancing in the aisles of an outdoor theater. It was the sound of the songs showing their world to you, and that it was a place worth the exploration. Nearly 25 years later, those songs are still the frontier.

Come Tomorrow is out 6/8 via Bama Rags Recording. Get it here.