Saxophonist LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band was a famously taciturn man. Moore, who died last August at 46 of complications from injuries suffered in an off-road-vehicle accident on his farm in Virginia, never spoke onstage — not at any DMB show I saw, anyway — and declined to be interviewed for stories about the group. When I wrote about the Dave Matthews Band for a Rolling Stone cover story in 2002, Moore avoided even saying hello. A founding member of one of America's best-selling bands, he was also spectacularly successful at minding his own business.
Matthews, who drew the richly detailed artwork for this record, knew a different Moore. On the cover of Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, DMB's seventh studio album, Matthews portrays Moore as a giant laughing head on a Mardi Gras float, leading the delirium on a French Quarter street. And Matthews opens the record with a sparkling evocation: the sound of Moore's piercing alto sax dancing atop drummer Carter Beauford's eruptive rolls and Stefan Lessard's humming bass in the brief instrumental "Grux." A still, stocky presence in concert, like an upright bear in corkscrew dreads, Moore was a nimble, lusty player on his various horns, threading Matthews' vocal melodies and Boyd Tinsley's violin runs with jazzy intuition and funky punctuations.
Moore died early in the sessions for Big Whiskey, before the bulk of the album was made with producer Rob Cavallo in New Orleans last winter. (The album credits do not specify which tracks Moore played on; Jeff Coffin of Bela Fleck's Flecktones also plays sax here, and now on the road with DMB as well.) The sudden loss hangs over this record's startling punch like one of that city's humid summer rains. "Still here dancing with the GrooGrux King," Matthews declares on "Why I Am," tenaciously holding on to Moore's memory. More typical, though, are references like the "soldier's last breath" in "Funny the Way It Is" and Matthews' blunt fatalism in "Spaceman": "Doesn't everyone deserve to have the good life?/But it don't always work out." "Squirm" is straight-up doomsday. "Out there, no food, no drink/How many days do you think you'd last?" Matthews sings, then throws down a growling challenge at the end: "If kindness is your king/Then heaven will be yours before you meet your end." It's as if his way of coping with Moore's passing is by contemplating everyone else's.
Matthews also roasts most of his conclusions with hot rusted electric guitars, played by himself and his longtime collaborator Tim Reynolds. It is a new wrinkle for a DMB studio album, and one too long in coming. The group's first big records, such as 1996's Crash and 1998's Before These Crowded Streets, were never as compelling to me as the live shows — particularly the spiraling sax-and-violin ascents propelled by Beauford and Lessard's fusion of funk and African rhythms — mostly because of the airy center left by Matthews' acoustic rhythm guitar. Cavallo, working with DMB for the first time, has brought some of the classic-rock edge of his hit records with Green Day and My Chemical Romance to Matthews' arena-size spin on early-Seventies Traffic, like the power-chord punctuation and slithering-fuzz flourishes behind Matthews' bad-news snarl in "Squirm."
Matthews and the band also bend the rock to their will. The hearty guitars and cackling brass in "Shake Me Like a Monkey" go perfectly with Matthews' blatant comic lust: "I like my coffee with toast and jelly/But I'd rather be licking from your back to your belly." (That he doesn't say exactly how he expects to get from one to the other means you will probably be able to buy this album at Walmart.) "Funny the Way It Is" is a busy, catchy bundle of tension and release, with Tinsley's violin slicing across the band's cut-and-thrust and a grunting riff in the bridge that gets under your skin like another chorus. For much of "Time Bomb," Matthews sings about his anger with grumbling restraint, in a nervous quiet — silver dots of soprano sax, soft, curdling organ, hovering violin. But when he finally blows up, Matthews shreds his voice like Eddie Vedder against a brick wall of Pearl Jam — a startling compact thrill, lasting only a minute and change, that sounds exactly like a guy losing control just when he needs it most.
The most aggressive instrument on "Alligator Pie (Cockadile)" is actually a banjo, played with locomotive relish by Danny Barnes, with Matthews scatting overhead, dodging Tinsley's scathing violin. The song is a prayer for New Orleans, still drowning in need nearly four years after Katrina ("Grace is all I'm asking/When will grace return?"). But when Matthews sings about all that's gone there now, it's hard not to hear Moore's spirit passing by as well: "All the things we wanted/Everything that was sure/Now there is a scar."
Big Whiskey, though, is a lot like a New Orleans funeral parade — mourning and zest balled into big, brawny music. "We'll be drinking big whiskey while we dance and sing," Matthews crows in "Why I Am." "And when my story ends, it's gonna end with him/Heaven or hell/I'm going down with the GrooGrux King." I'm betting on heaven — and that Moore will be quietly waiting for him.