Dave Matthews Band And The Sound Of Settling

Jun 8, 2018
Originally published on June 11, 2018 9:48 am

At 13, I began turning my childhood bedroom into a reliquary for the Dave Matthews Band. Subway-sized posters hung from the popcorn ceilings with images of Matthews singing from the stage of the Tibetan Freedom Concert or his band ambling through the forest on a hazy, gray day. On one wall, a massive matted frame held torn ticket stubs, snapshots of the stage I took while following the band on a winter tour in New England, and the title page of my high-school term paper about them, signed by Matthews in red Sharpie swoops: "Grayson — Peace and thanks, Dave Matthews." In a photo beneath it, I am 17 and posing with him, wearing the look of mixed terror and joy that only meeting your teenage idol can inspire.

In less than a decade, I saw the band 40 times and amassed a collection of 500 bootleg recordings, each dutifully hand-labeled with set lists and salient concert notes, stored in gargantuan CD binders onto which I had affixed Dave Matthews Band patches. I had a girlfriend, sure, but I realize now that the band was my real childhood love. I haven't lived in that room in North Carolina for nearly two decades, but my parents leave it largely as it was when I graduated in 2001, a dusty shrine to the heroes of my adolescence. For them, I think, it is the last will and testament of my childhood, a roadmap between the person I was when I first heard the group at 13 and the person I was quickly becoming by the time I left home.

Indeed, for a kid in the rural South, the Dave Matthews Band could open worlds. From their earliest days in the coffee shops and downtown bars of Charlottesville, Va., these musicians dared to web a busy mix of jazz and bluegrass, blues and funk around Matthews' florid falsetto, with violin, saxophone and a hyperactive rhythm section offering answers to questions about alternative rock that no one had asked. However clumsy they could be, those songs summarily led me to Neil Young and Sonny Rollins, Hugh Masekela and Aimee Mann, Stéphane Grappelli and Meshell Ndegeocello. I would diligently untangle the threads tucked inside every tune, tracking down albums by the influences they cited in an effort to better understand just how the band arrived at its uncanny pop fusion. Those discoveries made me realize, for the first time, how vast and rich music was, a lesson I am still digesting.

The Dave Matthews Band had created these pantheistic songs only one state away, a fact that, for a teenager increasingly aware of his native region's sometimes-rightful cultural ignominy, became a semaphore. The South and its small cities, this music suggested, could produce something the whole country seemed to like, as with R.E.M. an era earlier. That was the sort of Southern pride I needed.

Most important, though, was Matthews' often-understated ideological core. Alongside songs about the occasional joint or his seemingly ceaseless need for sex, he dabbled in tunes about media criticism and environmental policy, capitalist excoriation and anti-apartheid agitation. In 1998, just as I was pondering future colleges and potential careers, the band released Before These Crowded Streets, an audacious attempt at art-rock provocation that references the Trail of Tears, pacifism and sustainability. Before I'd heard of Howard Zinn or read Rachel Carson, Matthews made radical politics not only accessible but affable, a thing I could share with friends who had grown up on nearby farms. That mix led some folks to kick a hacky sack around the quad or drop out of college altogether and stand on street corners for Greenpeace. It made me want to learn about politics and eventually fight for others' rights. I understand now that, in my life, there has never been a more important gateway than the Dave Matthews Band.

The night I turned 35, then, I should have been elated. When the clock struck midnight on the last day of May, I was in bed but awake, listening for the first time to an advance copy of Come Tomorrow, the band's ninth full-length album and first in six years. Around the time I'd left home for college, the band's new records had started to sound, to me, stiff and unimaginative. But 2012's Away from the World offered the occasional glimpse of a renaissance, and Come Tomorrow's first single, "Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin)," sparkled. In the tumultuous social climate of 2018, I was excited to hear how the band that had been such a part of my personal political awakening would respond to today's intense unrest, what insights it might have amid this modern mess.

Lights out, I conjured an image of myself at 16, grinning and goofy in glasses, wearing khaki cargo shorts and one of what must have been three dozen Dave Matthews Band T-shirts. I wondered if, somewhere on the other side of the space-time continuum, the younger me felt a twinge of déjà vu at this instant of future fulfillment. But by the time the 14 laborious tracks on Come Tomorrow ended, I was exhausted, confused and a little indignant, thanks to an album that takes almost an hour to say very little that motivated or even moved me. After more than a quarter-century of music, the band's response to a mortally troubled planet where scientific consensus is ticking quickly toward doomsday plays like the musical equivalent of the shruggie, its creators squaring up against an increasingly complex world by playing dumb.

Come Tomorrow is not my least favorite Dave Matthews Band album: For me, 2001's oil-slick Everyday and 2005's clumsily funky Stand Up remain the most painful listens, the efforts of a maturing band desperately searching to match its outsized onstage earnings with a new radio hit. But it does feel like the group's most hollow and frustrating effort, a record with so little to offer that it leaves 35-year-old me wondering if the teenaged me was simply duped. On its middling '00s records, when the musicians seemed at a loss for how to sound in the new millennium, the solution was to mix songs that championed social justice with the feel-good stuff that made them famous. So where had the band that once seemed so fearless — for better and worse, often in the course of a single tune — gone?

The best thing that can be said about Matthews as a songwriter on Come Tomorrow is that he seems like the sort of rock star you would want to marry. He is a father who adores his kids and wants to teach them well. He is a husband who apologizes readily and still calls you his best friend. He is a lover whose appetite rivals that of a hormonal teenager. As The New York Times' Jon Pareles put it in his glowing review of Come Tomorrow, "For Dave Matthews, 'dad rock' isn't a put-down."

Indeed, most of Come Tomorrow happily deals with Matthews' family. For opener "Samurai Cop," an arcing and plaintive tune that borrows U2's grandeur and post-rock's atmospherics, he sketches the scene of the birth of one of his children, then urges the kid to carry the innocence of their early years far into life. Alongside its slight piano reprise that ends the album, "Samurai Cop" is one of Come Tomorrow's few bright spots, a song in which Matthews has distilled nearly 20 years of fatherhood into a new lesson for dealing with the world. Both emotionally and musically, it feels inspired. Likewise, the string-swept "Here On Out" is about the sense of permanent belonging one can find in family. There are tunes about persevering through a relationship's roughest patches, hoping to stay forever young and in love, and being redeemed by your partner despite embarrassing missteps.

At 51, Matthews hasn't lost his love for songs about sex, the endearing but awkward career thread that yielded the megahit "Crash into Me" and the more sophisticated minor hit "Crush." Over the tempered gutbucket funk of "Can't Stop," he is a "junkie for you" looking to get his first fix at dawn and hoping the kids stay asleep through it. During the harmonica-and-bass goof "Do You Remember," Matthews beams about a backseat makeout. Rendered in a grated, grating falsetto, "That Girl Is You" gives Matthews' romantic triumvirate — flirting, foreplay and, uh, fornicating — the messianic power to change hearts and minds.

That's the only change you'll hear earnestly explored on Come Tomorrow; the album eschews social and political commentary so completely you may think the problems he has spent his career criticizing have suddenly been fixed. During the title track and finale, Matthews dutifully assures us they haven't, that the world remains as worrisome as it was when he first wrote about global warming and religious intolerance in the '90s and caused kids like me to pay attention. But with a polite coo, he admits he just doesn't have the passion or patience to fight anymore, at least as a songwriter.

Matthews begins "Come Tomorrow" with an image of a wizened miser cursing the state of society, while a nearby child busily schemes "to save the world, along with that old man." The message is clear: Give up and wait for the next generation to save us from our own sins. "All the girls and boys will sing, 'Come tomorrow, we get everything' / 'So long as we survive today, come tomorrow, we're going to find a way,'" he offers in close harmony with Brandi Carlile, their co-ed chorus implying that all the adults have agreed to stop trying. Hoping the next generation can right many of our wrongs is sensibly optimistic, of course; we're not going to be able to pull it off by ourselves, if at all. But Matthews' hangdog resignation is a new spiritual low for someone who, from the stage this summer, will encourage fans to not "burn the day away" and not "lie in our graves ... dreaming of things that we might have been." In a recent interview, he explained that he was done writing about politics because the tone of the discourse had soured too much. "I don't want to sink as low as politics or the so-called leaders of the country," he stammered.

The choice between delving into locker-room talk and avoiding politics altogether is a false binary — and rings especially empty from someone who has written so thoughtfully and accessibly about our problems in the past. The Dave Matthews Band, for instance, made "Don't Drink the Water," a song about colonial conquest and assaults on indigenous rights, the first single on an album that sold 3 million copies; the band still uses it to start concerts or set up encores. In 2012, Matthews debuted "Mercy," a gorgeous motivational ballad about solidarity and kindness, on late-night television with the help of The Roots. Invoking Carole King and Stevie Wonder, the quiet, tender tune topped Billboard's "Adult Alternative" chart and climbed surprisingly high on its "Hot Rocks" list. Matthews has taken care to make his protest music popular, so it stands a chance of having an actual impact.

At least as '90s alternative-rock vestiges go, the band is uniquely equipped to say something politically relevant in 2018. From the start, it has epitomized an integrative creative ethic, with more black members than white ones, and made music that expressed solidarity through a polyglot aesthetic. Matthews is also a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, where he saw apartheid break apart from the inside. He's got actual experience fighting oppressive political systems, which he funneled into several of his best songs in the '90s, turning South African leader Chris Hani into the hook of the irrepressible "#36." And even as the group's popularity has waned, it has remained a charitable titan, donating more than $40 million to equal rights initiatives, environmental causes and community organizations through its fund, Bama Works. (Full disclosure: Bama Works donated $2,000 to Come Out & Show Them, a nonprofit I helped launch, after we directed the band's proceeds from a North Carolina concert to organizations fighting for transgender rights.)

What's more, the last year brought two of this young century's most vital social movements to the Dave Matthews Band's doorstep. In August 2017, the band's cradle (and, for some members, current home) of Charlottesville became a flashpoint of modern white supremacy. Nationalists with Tiki torches marched through the quaint college town in the last of a series of protests against the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in a public park. During clashes with counter-protestors, a man who had marched in front of the Lee statue earlier in the day plowed his car into a crowded side street, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old legal assistant. Six weeks later, the Dave Matthews Band hosted an enormous "evening of music and unity" benefit alongside the likes of Pharrell Williams, Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland of Coldplay and Ariana Grande in the University of Virginia's football stadium.

On a very different note, three weeks before Come Tomorrow's arrival, news emerged that the band's violinist, Boyd Tinsley, was being sued by a former protégé, the trumpeter James Frost-Winn, for years of alleged sexual harassment and assault; Frost-Winn said the #MeToo movement had empowered him to come forward. Tinsley had already announced he was sitting out this year's tour. He denies the allegations, but the band fired him the night the lawsuit surfaced, insisting they weren't aware of the allegations in advance. (In Charlottesville, local media insists that the band — the town as a whole, in fact — has known about this stuff for years.) Tinsley appears on just one Come Tomorrow track, adding faint fiddle wisps to "Idea of You," though several other songs are awash with strings. Meanwhile, late saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died in 2008, plays on two tracks. Whatever the reason, Tinsley has been bowdlerized from the songs on Come Tomorrow, some of which he played live for years.

Those deeds — swiftly handling assault allegations and summoning superstar friends to help a grieving hometown — are laudable, of course. But neither resonates on Come Tomorrow, the band's opportunity to make a more lasting statement about the state of the world.

I have friends who swear by this stuff, old pals who will dutifully buy Come Tomorrow and go to this summer's 46-date tour, then tell me by text message that the band is as vital and energetic as ever, or that it has, at last, picked up on the promise of its late-'90s incandescence. And Come Tomorrow does deliver an active sort of nostalgia, where you don't pine for the sepia-toned simplicity of the past so much as envision yourself living in an extension of it, retaining a sense of sovereignty even as culture morphs around you. That's what you see in Lady Bird, when hearing "Crash Into Me" takes Saoirse Ronan's Christine back to a moment where everything seemed a lot easier, where mere survival didn't feel so terribly taxing. That's useful for a teenager defining her identity; it's dangerous for adults in power. We still have a chance at pure happiness, these new songs collectively suggest, just like we imagined as idealistic kids.

It is too much, of course, to expect any band or anybody at all to evolve in tandem with you, to dovetail perfectly with your developing interests and ideas. Two decades after it changed my life, I never hoped that the Dave Matthews Band would be right alongside me, putting music to the issues that matter to me now. That's why we find other bands, books, hobbies and friends, so we have new outlets for exploring and expressing our enthusiasms. But it is not too much to expect a band to evolve, to ask questions, to show it is at least interested in engaging with the times — especially when that's what gave it power and relevance in the first place. Art, after all, is an extension of our humanity, constantly in conversation with the world we've created.

The songs on Come Tomorrow will fit right in on tour this summer, as 15,000 or so people gather every night for what feels like a big cookout with bud, buds, and Bud Light. Over the years, the band has trimmed much of its early improvisation, compacting a "jam" pedigree into solos that feel scripted. It has culled its once-sprawling set of available songs into a few dozen familiar favorites meant to guarantee a good time and keep people coming. The old political tunes still dot the setlists, but they are mostly the safe standards — "One Sweet World," which became a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor, or "Ants Marching," a crowd-pleaser despite its criticism of crowds. That's the same complacency I hear in Come Tomorrow, a listless acceptance that the band I fell for might have admonished. It is an album about sheltering in place, hoping for the best from the safety of the sidelines.

Matthews seemed to acknowledge as much in a recent interview with New York, in which he spoke enthusiastically about writing songs for a film as part of a solo project without his band. "I wasn't answering to anything other than the act of making new music, and that music was made with pure intention," he said. "That was a very beautiful experience." It makes me suspect he dislikes what he must become to make a record or entertain the audience on the lawn these days — someone so set on meeting expectations that they've forgotten exactly what it is they initially enjoyed. Back in 1996 he gave that state of being a name: "the proudest monkey."

The lessons I learned from the band's earlier songs still hold fast. I didn't approach Come Tomorrow expecting salvation, or even advice on dealing with the trials of 2018. But I also didn't expect to find a childhood mentor fleeing the scene of all this discord, retreating inward at a time when alliance feels vital. Perhaps it's easier to play the hits, make money, and put the charitable checks in the mail, as I reckon the honorable Dave Matthews Band will continue to do. But these artists' ability to do that in the first place stems, at least in part, from their willingness to speak out for decades through song. I hate to hear them stop.

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