Dave Matthews Takes Fenway

Backstage at DMB and Willie Nelson's two-night blowout

Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band performs at Madison Square Garden on April 14th, 2009 in New York City. Credit: Rob Loud/Getty

The Dave Matthews Band are on a massive stage set up in the outfield of Fenway Park, running through a soundcheck for their second of two sold-out shows at the legendary Boston ballpark. With the set list up in the air, the band members are listening to a record­ing of themselves playing Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" — one of the covers they're considering. When it's over, violinist Boyd Tinsley, who clear­ly hasn't been paying attention, asks, "Was that us?"

The band cracks up. Matthews looks at drummer Carter Beauford. "What would LeRoi say to that?" the singer asks, before assuming the notoriously cranky demean­or of DMB saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died last August. "That's the luckiest black man in America, right there.'" Moore's ghost hovers over DMB's summer tour behind the new Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, running through early October — from the concession stands, with Sox jerseys bearing Moore's name and the number "41" (a 1996' DMB staple that show­cased Moore's soulful playing), to the stage, where new songs like "Why I Am" and "My Baby-Blue" pay tribute to him.

Guitarist Tim Reynolds, a veteran of Matthews' solo albums who also worked on GrooGrux, gave the album a heavier, more ragged sound. Onstage, his virtuosic solos, crunching power chords and soaring slide interludes balance the band's more ethereal mo­ments. Sipping a latte in a trailer behind the stadium, Matthews reflects on the band's first tour without Moore. "The strange thing is that . . . it's not that strange," says Matthews. "His presence is still in open conver­sation when we're up there. We make reference to him all the time, very casually."

Backstage, Beauford and bassist Stefan I.essard lift weights in the Red Sox training room, while Tinsley eyes ESPN for French Open updates — he's a tennis fanatic — and mulls over clothing options for the night, settling on a bedazzled hoodie. "When I used to get dressed before a show, LeRoi would always fuck with every­thing I had on — because it usu­ally was pretty outrageous," he says, laughing. "I miss that. It made me feel good."

Matthews swings by opener Willie Nelson's bus, filled with dense smoke from the country legend's "peace pipe." The duo rehearse Matthews' solo song "Gravedigger" (which Nelson covered on last year's Moment of Forever) to perform together during DMB's set. When Nel­son starts to sing in his singu­lar nasal tone, Matthews stops and turns to his tour manag­er: "Is that the most beautiful thing you've ever heard?"

The night before, the band debuted six songs from GrooGrux, mixed in with DMB classics like "Ants Marching," rarities like 1998's "Pig," and funked-up covers of "Burn­ing Down the House" and "All Along the Watchtower." Jeff Coffin, who began filling in after Moore was injured last year, plays tenor and alto saxo­phones at the same time during a frantic solo on "Jimi Thing." On the muscular new track "Time Bomb," Matthews' husky voice cranks up to passionate screaming. By Matthews' solo encore of Pete Seeger's "Rye Whiskey," his pipes are almost shot. "I don't know if my voice is going to hold up for this," he says. "But, fuck, you gotta try."

When the group returns to Fenway early Saturday after­noon, Coffin, a Boston-area native, tiptoes onto the infield and scoops up some dirt. "This is holy ground," he whispers. Matthews looks a bit ragged, slumping on a couch backstage, downing organic tea and read­ing the labels of several drop­per bottles. "Boyd gave me some herbal stuff that he gets from a friend," he says, debat­ing whether or not to self-med­icate his scorched pipes. "If my voice is going to fail, it's going to fail," he adds. "I don't care what people think of this band like I did three years ago. LeRoi said, 'What does it matter what people think?' Now I stick my tongue out at the crowd and make stupid faces. I can be my­self and I don't care, because the best I can give is myself."

The second Fenway gig, Saturday night, features crowd favorites "Rapunzel" and "Two Step," which includes a 10-minute drum solo from Beauford. The crowd erupts when the band plays the opening notes to the Beantown garage-rock classic "Dirty Water" and sings along with every word. Matthews' voice endures, and he seems happy on the giant stage, dancing goofily during solos and occasionally hacking into the microphone without apology. "Sometimes people leave behind land or art or sci­ence when they die," says Mat­thews. "Roi left me rules, and ones I could never follow when he was alive."