Friday, November 13, 2009

Dave Matthews Band, ‘Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King’

A band is basically an idea: A group of people get together with a notion for a song, or a sound, or a style, and they turn that nebulous connection into reality.

Some bands don’t express that idea quite clearly the first time out, so it takes time to refine, allowing it to evolve, expand. The band expounds upon that core, while never forsaking the original spark.

Others are crystallized right away; the idea hits your ears fully and perfectly realized. These kinds of bands typically burn bright then fade out, because there’s just nowhere for them to go. They gave us their best right away. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Longevity can be overrated.

The Dave Matthews Band, however, is a bit of both. Without question they gave us the best, fully formed version of the idea that is DMB immediately. The band’s first three albums—1993's “Remember Two Things,” 1994’s “Under the Table and Dreaming,” and 1996’s “Crash”—all of them rather fantastic—came from basically the same intense series of songwriting sessions when the group got together in Charlottesville in the early '90s. The heady, unlikely brew of acoustic guitar, saxophone, violin, and extraordinary percussion wasn’t just a spark on first blush, it was a conflagration. Whether you liked it or not, the first time you heard Dave Matthews Band there in the mid-’90s, you got the best of what it had to offer.

It was great.

And it didn’t last.

The band’s fourth album, 1998’s “Before These Crowded Streets,” was the first true batch of songwriting these drunken, pot-smoking misfits encountered in the years since they brought their idea to life. “BTCS” is pretty good, but the signs of fade are clear if you go back and listen to it now: the dark tones, the angry lyrics, the sprawling, sometimes aimless songs that stretch well into the five-minute category and beyond.

By the end of the decade, the band’s eponymous leader had given us his best. He knew the infamous “Lillywhite Sessions” would get the job done, but he didn’t want to just keep treading on the same old thing. So, in hopes of a new idea, he sought out pop craftsman Glen Ballard and the two wrote a batch of songs in just a couple of weeks. Matthews was tricking himself into thinking he’d come up with that new thing, but it was fool’s gold. The resulting album, 2001’s “Everyday,” was different, sure, but it didn’t remain true to the original; Matthews admits as much these days, even while dutifully defending it. Buoyed by its poppy title track, “Everyday” still sold quite well. It’s the only DMB album I don’t own.

The following year DMB finally released the “Lillywhite” recordings, reworked a bit and formally christened “Busted Stuff.” It was fine. There are some good tracks there (“Grace Is Gone” and “Grey Street” among them), but how good could an album really be when the artists are essentially held up without a gun by their devoted fans and forced to release it?

By this point I’d moved on. Dave Matthews Band went from being one of my favorite bands to … some band I used to love and don’t listen to much anymore. 2005’s “Stand Up” barely registered. I bought it, listened to it a few times, forgot it, and the band. Entirely.

And then, LeRoi Moore died.

It’s a complicated thing trying to work out how to feel about an album as good as DMB’s new one, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” when I know it wouldn’t be this good without the passing of the saxophonist extraordinaire. In promoting the album earlier this year, Matthews said it was the quiet Moore who was most fervent about recapturing on record what the band seemingly only could bring to the live experience at this point in its career. The band was already moving in that direction, apparently, when Moore suffered the ATV accident last year that eventually cost him his life. Losing their beloved bandmate made the surviving members of DMB redouble their efforts to make “GrooGrux” (Moore’s nickname) live up to his demands.

They did.

The album begins and ends with a plaintive sax solo—merely a snippet of an idea Moore recorded before his death. In between is the best Dave Matthews Band record in more than a decade.

It starts with “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” a ferocious rocker that recalls a wall-shaking track like “Too Much.” Rashawn Ross’ squealing trumpet is a tremendous addition to the band, and “Monkey” is without question one of the band’s best-ever cuts: exhilarating, sinewy, surprises lurking around every musical turn.

From that point on there really isn’t a bad track in the whole set. It’s such a refreshing return to form, it makes me wonder how this band lost its way so dramatically. Like their earlier albums, “GrooGrux” is filled with joy—not in the lyrics, necessarily, but the overall emotion. The songs flow so easily, on their own and one into another. There’s an openness in the sound DMB hasn’t had in forever; gone is the claustrophobic dark cloud that weighed upon “Stand Up” and “Busted Stuff.”

In its place are starry twinklers “Funny the Way It Is” and “Lying in the Hands of God”; thick grooves “Seven,” “Spaceman,” and “Squirm”; the all-out boogie of “Alligator Pie,” the type of freewheelin’ romp 2005’s “Louisiana Bayou” merely pretended to be. Besides “Monkey,” my two other favorite tracks on the CD are “Why I Am,” a wide open, high-energy gem like only DMB can produce (think “Ants Marching”). The other is “Time Bomb,” reminiscent of the band’s treatment of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” in the way it builds and builds before exploding; the final minute rocks harder and heavier than any song in Dave Matthews Band’s catalog. My only complaint is a tiny one: I would have broken up the back-to-back mellow duo of “Baby Blue” and “You & Me,” which close the album on a bit too quiet of a note.

What makes “GrooGrux” such a triumph is how the band stopped trying to be something they aren’t and got back to what made us all love them in the first place. Gone are the pop trappings that made them sound like any other crappy light-rock band on the radio. But this isn’t a simple rehash, either: it’s the natural progression from “Crash”—it just took them a decade to figure out how to write it. Though not quite as great as those early albums, it comes darn close.

Prior to hearing “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” I thought my Dave Matthews Band fandom was dead and buried. This album brought it back to life.

Grade: A-

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