Dave Matthews Band - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, The Grateful Dead built a successful multi-million dollar grassroots business model based on their legions of cult followers. By encouraging their fans to embrace live shows instead of studio albums, The Dead successfully developed a concert subculture that ensured sold-out venues wherever they played, making the band—rather than the industry executives—captains of their own destiny.
Dave Matthews Band embraced The Grateful Dead grassroots model, but it also found Billboard chart success as well, releasing multiple platinum albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s. By marrying prolonged jam sessions with melodic pop sensibilities, DMB brought the jam band into the mainstream and paved the way for a whole genre of jam-based contemporary pop. Since the dawn of the millennium, DMB’s chart success has wavered but their diehard following across the United States has not.
Dave Matthews unintentionally formed Dave Matthews Band in 1991 in the picturesque college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. While working at a bar called Millers, Matthews was energized by Charlottesville’s vibrant college music scene, and the young South African immigrant was inspired to write songs of his own. At first he didn’t want to perform them in front of an audience, but after a chance encounter with lawyer Ross Hoffman, Matthews was encouraged to at least record a demo tape of original material.
Matthews recruited local drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist Leroi Moore to help him flesh out the songs. Without a bass player, the initial demo sessions were shambolic at best. Matthews took a friend’s advice and approached 16 year-old bass prodigy, Stephan Lessard, who began rehearsing with the yet unnamed group. Lessard would eventually become a full-time member despite his young age. Fellow bartender and harmonica player Peter Griesar joined the band in late 1991 after checking out one of their jam sessions, but he left in 1993 when the group’s touring schedule became too hectic.
While recording the demos in earnest, Matthews introduced a fiddle solo in the song, “Tripping Billies,” and Moore suggested bringing his musician friend Boyd Tinsley into the mix. Tinsley’s powerfully eclectic playing brought the band’s sound to a whole new level, but at the time he had obligations in other local groups—including his own The Boyd Tinsley Ban— so he didn’t officially join the line up until the summer of 1992.
Although they had yet to release a note of music, the group began to generate a solid word of mouth buzz throughout southern Virginia on the strength of their jam-heavy live shows. Going out on tour but still without a stable name, Moore booked the band in a hotel one night under the name “Dave Matthews Band” since Matthews wrote a large majority of their original material. The name stuck—although it is a misnomer since the band is a creative democracy and equal financial partnership.
In their developmental years, Dave Matthews Band began recording live material during residencies at the popular Charlottesville club, Trax. Many of these recordings have become highly sought after bootlegs, although a few tracks did make it onto DMB’s debut album. Remember Two Things (1993) was self released on the band’s short-lived Bama Rags imprint. The record was an instant college radio success, which elicited a major label bidding war. Dave Matthews Band eventually signed to RCA Records.
The folk-pop jams of their debut with the label, Under the Table and Dreaming (1994 RCA), were slow to catch on initially. However, after the single “What Would You Say” spread like wild fire over the modern rock radio waves the album went platinum nearly a year after it was originally released. Subsequent singles, “Ants Marching,” “Satellite,” and “Jimi Thing” also became radio hits, and by end of 1995 DMB had officially become one of the most celebrated new bands of the year.
Dave Matthews Band wasted no time in reuniting with Under the Table and Dreaming producer Steve Lillywhite to record a follow up—the double-platinum selling, Crash (1996 RCA). The album streamlined DMB’s jam heavy live sound into radio friendly ditties without sacrificing its signature eclecticism. Crash became another massive hit spawning the singles, “Crash Into Me,” “So Much To Say,” “Too Much,” and a re-recorded version of one of the originals, “Tripping Billies.” That same year, DMB played an integral part in taking down foreign bootlegging companies. Ironically, the band has traditionally encouraged fans to make bootleg copies of their live shows for trading purposes, but Matthews became disgruntled when tidy profits were being made off selling DMB bootlegs of poor quality.
By 1997, DMB announced plans to provide high-quality live recordings to their fans on a regular basis and released the first of many live albums, Live at Red Rocks 08.15.95 (1997 RCA). The album was an instant hit with the burgeoning fanbase, selling over a million copies in five months. Later that year DMB released the live EP, Recently (1997 RCA), which featured live versions of previously unreleased material such as “Halloween” and the Bob Dylan cover, “All Along the Watchtower.”
After two massively successful pop oriented albums, DMB decided to explore a more experimental vein on their next full-length. Once again produced by Steve Lillywhite, Before These Crowded Streets (1998 RCA) was rawer and darker than anything the band had released before. It included numerous guest musicians like pop rebel Alanis Morissette, banjo maestro Bela Fleck, and Kronos Quartet. The angry, grunge-like first single “Don’t Drink the Water” shattered Matthews neo-hippy public perception, and although it wasn’t a gargantuan hit like previous DMB singles, it expressed a seedy and angry underbelly of the band. Despite its darker tone, Before These Crowded Streets debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and the band set out on another successful US tour.
The following year saw the release of two Dave Matthews oriented live albums. The first, Listener Supported (1999 RCA), was a recording of the band’s set at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey on September 11, 1999. The intimate live acoustic album, Live at Luther College (1999 RCA), was attributed to Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, a longtime collaborator and exceptional classical guitar player. Recorded three years prior its release, the album consisted mostly of Crash-era material and featured the rarely played track, “What Will Become of Me?”
By the year 2000, the Dave Matthews Band had been touring and recording relentlessly for nine straight years, but instead of taking time off they built their own studio in an abandoned farmhouse outside Charlottesville. They began recording their fifth full-length album, again with Steve Lillywhite, but this time the sessions would become tumultuous. Internal strife and creative fatigue—culminating with the recent loss of Matthews uncle to alcoholism—clouded the end of an era that would come to be known as “The Lillywhite Sessions.” Unhappy with the dark direction of the new tracks, the band shelved the material, sacked Lillywhite, and Matthews sojourned to Los Angeles to write a new batch of songs with Alanis Morissette producer, Glen Ballard.
The resulting full-length, Everyday (2001 RCA), exchanged DMB’s signature live sound for a more radio-friendly pop sheen that divided the band’s diehard fanbase. Beauford would later claim the entire album was written and recorded by Matthews and Ballard with very little input from the band, making Everyday more of a Matthews solo effort than a full-fledged DMB recording. Disappointed fans turned toward the elusive Lillywhite Session material, which had subsequently been leaked onto the Internet, and was considered far superior to the poppy Ballard songs. Sensing their fans growing disapproval, DMB quickly re-entered the studio with producer Stephen Harris and re-recorded much of the Lillywhite Sessions material for their sixth full-length, Busted Stuff (2002 RCA). Dark, eclectic, and most of all inspired, Busted Stuff was considered a herculean return to form and stands today as a classic DMB album.
Shortly thereafter, Matthews continued to mine his darker side on his official solo debut album, Some Devil (2003 RCA). The album won numerous critical accolades along the way, even picking up a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for the single, “Gravedigger.” Violist/vocalist Boyd Tinsley also released his debut solo effort, True Reflections (2003 RCA) the same year. In support of Some Devil, Matthews embarked on the Dave Matthews & Friends tour, featuring such top level players as Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Tim Reynolds, Ray Paczkowski, Brady Blade and Tony Hall. Despite the flurry of solo material, DMB returned to the stage in September of 2003 for a free concert in New York City’s Central Park, which attracted 100,000 spectators with donations benefiting New York City public schools. Today the “Central Park Concert” stands in DMB fan lore as one of the best live shows of the band’s career.
In 2004, DMB announced the periodic release of select live recordings, called Live Trax, from their extensive archives and only available through the Dave Matthews Band website. The first release, the self-released Live Trax Vol. 1 (2004) was recorded in Worcester, Massachusetts in December, 1998. The band has released 11 volumes of the series thus far.
Although Busted Stuff appeared to have righted DMB’s wavering creative course, the return to mainstream pop on their fifth full-length, Stand Up (2005 RCA), was once again polarized diehard fans. Despite mixed reviews, Stand Up debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. The music video for first single, “Dreamgirl,” featured Academy Award-winning actress Julia Roberts, a self-described long time fan.
DMB released its first best of compilation, The Best of What’s Around, Vol. 1 (RCA) in 2006. Oddly, Dave Matthews Band has remained a North American phenomenon, rarely performing in Europe where albums sales have never been good. Even still, in 2007 DMB embarked on its first European tour in years, followed shortly after by a Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds acoustic tour of the continent. DMB’s annual summer concert tours still draw sold out crowds throughout North America, making the band one of the most popular and profitable touring acts in the country.
Dave Matthews Band is currently recording their eighth studio album with long-time Green Day producer, Rob Cavalo.