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How Dave Matthews Band Craft the Perfect Set List

Bassist Stefan Lessard reports sessions for the band's next album are "on a pause"

Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band.
Lyle A. Waisman/Getty Images
June 17, 2014 10:30 AM ET

After spending more than two decades on the road, Dave Matthews Band decided to shake things up for their summer 2014 tour, breaking shows into separate acoustic and electric sets. The move has resulted in plenty of surprises, including covers like Rodriguez's "Sugar Man" and Paul Simon's "Slip Slidin' Away," as well as Matthews live rarities from 1993's "Song That Jane Likes" to 2003's "Stay or Leave."

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"It's been really creative and fun for us," says bassist Stefan Lessard, checking in from the road. "There's been a certain roadhouse, bohemian vibe that comes across during the acoustic sets — it brings us back to the early days."

So how exactly has the band been shaping its recent set lists? In the hours before the band takes the stage, Matthews sits down and creates a preliminary list of songs to play. "He checks with what was played at each venue over the past five years, and also what's been played the past couple of nights and how far we are from these areas," he says. "So, if you're playing somewhere that's only an hour away from where you played last night, you're gonna try and write a set that is very different from the one before. He's keeping tabs on all of the different elements."

The next step is a chat with other members of the band. "Then he finds [drummer] Carter [Beauford] and myself and makes sure that the rhythm section feel comfortable with things," Lessard explains. "And sometimes I might see something or Carter will see something that Dave isn't seeing — like, 'Hey, these three songs kind of have the same funk beat' and then maybe we'll switch it up. That's kind of how it works it out and it's worked that way for a few years. We all seem to like it."

The band also gather regularly in a backstage practice room where Beaufard plays a small street drum kit and Lessard has a tiny amp. They've jammed on ideas like John Denver's "Take Me to Tomorrow" that make it to the stage. And because it's impossible to remember every song on the fly, Lessard has discovered a new tool for re-learning rarities. "I'm embarrassed to say it, but I go to Spotify and I go to the live series of our records and I go play through the songs I might not know. And then I just get mad at management for releasing something that had mistakes on it," he says with a laugh. "I enjoy listening to certain eras. When I found out the Lovely Ladies were back coming out to grace our stage with us, I went back and listened to a bunch of the Listener Supported record. It was just nice to return to that part of our history."

The band is also looking ahead to their first studio record since 2012's Away From the World. Matthews told RS last year the band is working with producer Rob Cavallo and engineer Doug McKean, saying, "I'm trying to come up with something that doesn't sound like the past."

"We're sort of on a pause right now as far as any studio work and the newer material," says Lessard. "There's some things that we've worked on that we'll talk about every once in a while and kind of get excited for. But right now we're all in these shows, so the acoustic shows have sort of taken over any thoughts for the studio. And also I think that the acoustic thing is maybe opening up ideas for the next record as well. We've done some preproduction. I think there will be more preproduction to go. I don't think that any one song is yet ready to say, 'Oh yeah, I know it's going on the record.' But there's some new things and new music in the works for sure and it's all very exciting. I love when this band gets into a creative place to start making a new product and new music and it seems like we're gearing up to do that."

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