The Dave Matthews Band stands apart from the myriad neo-hippie jamsters populating rock’n’roll’s H.O.R.D.E. wing. Unlike most of its spiritual compatriots, the DMB doesn’t center its sound on blues licks or electric guitar workouts. Matthews, a South African expatriate who spent time in New York before moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, set out to make acoustic rock — not folk — and mined the city’s club scene for sympathetic bandmates to go south with him. Bassist Stefan Lessard and drummer Carter Beauford are a supple rhythm section steeped in jazz sensibilities, while saxophonist Leroi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley are distinctive soloists who bring an exotic, world music flavor to the music. On top of all that is Matthews’ reedy singing (which has drawn comparisons to Sting) and his fluid pop craft — a solid songwriting base from which the improvisations stem.
Because the DMB established itself as a live act, it’s appropriate that its first independent releases are performance-based. Remember Two Things is burdened by modest sound and production — as well as meandering jams — but it’s still easy to find the fresh, lively center of “Tripping Billies” and “Recently.” Eight of the ten tracks are live: the others, “Seek Up” and “Minarets,” mark the band’s concert chops as more advanced than its studio prowess. The five-song mail-order-only Recently EP remixes the title track, adding acoustic demos of two tunes slated for the next album and a pair of live numbers, including “All Along the Watchtower.”
Under the Table and Dreaming vaults the Dave Matthews Band — already in possession of strong grassroots popularity and a mighty merchandising machine — into the major leagues, sonically and commercially. Steve Lillywhite’s production brightens and muscles up the quintet’s sound, honing in on Matthews’ melodies and grooves while retaining just enough soloing to not betray the band’s spirit. “Ants Marching,” one of two songs repeated from Remember Two Things, is now a bouncy pop hit; the new “What Would You Say” and “Typical Situation” are just as catchy. “Jimi Thing” is a unique Hendrix tribute, a homage not to his guitar flash but to his spirituality (“Sometimes a Jimi thing slides my way/And keeps me swingin’ “). As a lyricist, Matthews forwards a populist world view, sometimes poetic and occasionally oblique. The truth is, the Dave Matthews Band’s primary appeal is musical, and Matthews’ troupe gives every indication that it’s tapped into a pretty deep and diverse font of inspiration.
The group didn’t tinker with its creative process much in following up that breakthrough. Lillywhite is back on board; the DMB’s Celtic-flavored jauntiness remains intact on “Too Much” and the aptly named “Two Step.” Crash is hardly a replay of Under the Table and Dreaming, however; the band employs a variety of new instruments (flute, baritone sax, six-string bass, electric guitar) to create darker or heavier textures and tones. Moore leans closer to R&B as well, bringing a honking King Curtis sensibility to bear on the sound. “41,” meanwhile, is an arresting simulation of the group’s onstage improvisational voodoo.