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

Managing Editor, Music

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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.”

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