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The Salvation of Dave Matthews

He was at the end of his rope, struggling with an album full of gloom. But then he picked up an electric guitar, and his life was saved by rock & roll

March 15, 2001
dave matthews band cover 2001
Dave Matthews Band on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

In the stark, cinderblock basement of the First Union Center in Philadelphia, Dave Matthews is not feeling well. He has a fever of 104. His voice is ragged, his eyes bloodshot, his face sagging with exhaustion. Sipping tea with honey, he wanders into the backstage production office. There, despite his grippe, he goes into his standard pre-show psychup – a kind of free-associative, spontaneous comic rap. Studying his ever-narrowing widow's peak in the mirror and rubbing his everexpanding belly, he says, "I don't know, I just don't have that boyband look." He makes a couple of jokes about the state of his bowels ("Things feel . . . I don't know. Loose"). He imitates a sputtering German despot, then observes, "I once heard the saying 'Germans don't make any mistakes – except the big ones.'" Then he strolls from the room, down a corridor – and onto the stage, where a capacity crowd of 10,000 awaits him. For the next ninety minutes, Matthews and his band produce their uncategorizable and unlikely blend of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, sax and fiddle music – a sound that has earned comparisons to everything from folk-based Sixties bands like Fairport Convention to Peter Gabriel to fusion jazz to African world beat to Pearl Jam. Over the past decade, this hybrid sound has made the Dave Matthews Band one of the top touring acts in the country and helped it sell some 20 million records. But tonight, with Matthews growing ever weaker at the mike, the band cuts short its famously long sax and fiddle jams to plow through a set of crowd-pleasers and then quickly quits the stage.

Matthews disappears to lie down. His band mates sit in the dressing room and post-mortem the show. Saxophonist LeRoi Moore, a taciturn, Buddha-shaped man of sometimes terrifying self-containment, makes his feelings known by simply turning his back to the room and seating himself inches from a TV screen, where a football game is in progress. Violinist Boyd Tinsley, whose explosive onstage performance is belied by his offstage shyness and the stammer that edges his speech, drops silently onto a couch, failing to remove his shades. Drummer Carter Beauford, the band's jovial diplomat, is saying that he could see that Dave just wasn't able to take things over the top. "He kept trying," he says, shaking his head, "but every time, the illness would pull him down again." Bassist Stefan Lessard, the band's ashram-reared youngest member at twenty-six, who, as usual, is dressed in the skate-punk garb of an oversized hip-hop sweat shirt and cargo pants, says, "I just hope the fans didn't notice . . . "

Unfortunately, they did. Later, in the hallway of my hotel near the arena, I encounter a couple of Daveheads who drove up from Virginia in the midst of Christmas exams just to see the show. Knowing nothing of their hero's illness, they wonder why the performance was so lackluster. "In the past I've seen them do weird gospel songs and stuff," says one of the girls. "Tonight, there were no surprises."

In fact, the band did have a surprise up its sleeve, but one that it elected not to reveal until now, with the release of its new album, Everyday. From the opening notes, it's clear this is something different. Rather than hearing the springy acoustic guitar that begins most DMB songs, the listener's ears are assaulted by a truly dirty electric guitar riff. Then comes Dave's voice. Shorn of its Sting-meets-Vedder-meets-Gabriel earnestness, it brims with a concupiscent swagger: "I did it/Do you think I've gone too far?/I did it/Guilty as charged . . . "

The song is only the first salvo in a record that, from start to finish, demolishes all expectations of what a Dave Matthews Band album should be. There are no extended fiddle or saxophone excursions, no seven-minute grooves. Each tune, honed to around four minutes, has a focus, economy and conviction that suggests a band reborn. It is, arguably, its best album, and an amazingly fresh record for a band in its tenth year. But will devotees of the old, acoustic DMB hoedowns embrace it? The group's namesake and nominal leader doesn't know.

And he doesn't really care. By the time he came to write the new record, Dave Matthews had reached such a personal nadir that he had no choice but to make some changes. For him, Everyday is far more than another record to fulfill his RCA contract. "Not to be overdramatic," he says without a hint of irony, "but it saved my life."

Two weeks after that Philadelphia show, on an unseasonably warm day in early January 2001, Dave Matthews is strolling around his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. A small city of some 50,000, it is also the site of the University of Virginia and a fecund breeding ground for all manner of musical cross-pollination in its tiny bars, pubs and restaurants.

There's a difference to Matthews from when I first met him four and a half years ago. Gone is the latter-day hippie attire, the seashell necklaces and faded T-shirts. Today he's dressed in a pair of expensive wool pants, a stylish zippered black cardigan and a supple black leather blazer. But it's also his mood and manner: He's toned down his former constant high-speed comedic riffing – accents, impersonations, dances, puns, poop jokes. He still ranks among the most disarmingly funny and unpretentious celebrities you'll ever meet (how many multimillionaire pop stars, for instance, drive a beat-up, garbage-strewn 1997 Subaru Outback?), but there's a new sobriety of mood, a seriousness to him. Partly, these changes reflect that he's five years older (he turned thirty-four the day before); partly that he has taken the decidedly adult step of becoming a husband (last August he married Ashley, his girlfriend of nine years). But the changes go deeper than that, as I'm to discover during the next two days in Charlottesville.

On the pretty, brick-paved pedestrian mall, Matthews stops outside Miller's, a modest pub and performance space where, eleven years ago, he used to sling drinks behind the bar. "I remember working at Miller's," he says, gazing at the illuminated neon sign. "I was very happy there. At that time I couldn't see this. Not in my wildest dreams."

Little wonder. Back then he was a twenty-three-year-old, ponytailed community-college dropout with little idea of where he was going. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1967, the son of a physicist father and an architect mother, he had a peripatetic childhood – one whose eclectic cultural influences would eventually find their way into his hybrid musical style. At age two, his family moved from South Africa to New York's suburban Westchester County, where his father worked for IBM. Another year was spent in London. But after Dave's father died from cancer when Dave was ten, the family returned to Johannesburg. When he was eighteen, Dave was called up for South Africa's compulsory military service. Unwilling to fight for a racist apartheid regime that the Matthews family had always opposed, he moved back to the U.S., settling eventually in Charlottesville with his mother, brother and younger sister.

He soon drifted into his job at Miller's. Eschewing college, he drew and painted, smoked pot and noodled on his guitar, eventually writing four songs – songs it took him two years to get up the courage to play for anyone. When he did, a couple of local musicians and Miller's regulars named John D'earth and Ross Hoffman urged him to make a demo tape. Unsure of his talents, and uneasy about the "display of ego" that performing entails, Matthews was, he says, "running on other people's enthusiasm at that point." Nevertheless, he recruited some musicians he idolized from the local scene: drummer Carter Beauford; sax man LeRoi Moore; a hotshot sixteen-year-old bass prodigy, Stefan Lessard; and a classically trained violinist, Boyd Tinsley. "When we first heard Dave's songs," Beauford says, "we knew right away this guy was amazing." And once Matthews heard the unique melding of the band's instrumentation, he realized that he wasn't just making a demo tape. He was in a band. "When we started playing clubs," Matthews says, "everything changed. There was ambition and motivation. We were aggressive. We weren't looking for anyone to find us -we were going out and preaching."

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