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Dave Matthews gives UK some American jam

Bob Costa | Sunday, March 4, 2007

In the United States, Dave Matthews is famous for his bohemian brand of rock music that blends jazz-influenced jams with funky acoustic guitar. With his summer tours, Matthews has sold out amphitheaters and stadiums around the country – drawing thousands of college and high school student revelers to parking lots and massive lawns all over the US. Due to his American successes, Matthews has won three Grammy awards and sold millions of albums.

Yet in the United Kingdom, Matthews is able to walk into a pub anonymously. Just as British pop star Robbie Williams was never able to break big across the pond, so too has Matthews struggled to build a fan-base on the UK and Europe as a whole.

Despite this, he recently played a concert in a tiny theater that is a part of Newcastle City Hall in northern England, playing to a small crowd of Brits and a few dedicated American fans that made the trek.

The concert was listed as a solo acoustic performance, but he surprised the audience by having his long-time friend and guitar accompanist Tim Reynolds join him for the entire show. Reynolds is notable for sharing the top billing with Matthews on the multi-platinum 1999 release “Live at Luther College” and for encouraging Matthews to start a band after teaching the young South African bartender a few things about playing the guitar during Matthews early days as a musician in Virginia.

More mature in both appearance and sound, Matthews has grown visibly older since the heady days of his early career that revolved around sex and drugs. The magic of Matthews’ music is still strong, though it seems to have lost some of its quirky songwriting seen on classics like “What Would You Say” – songs like “Oh” and “Smooth Rider,” although pleasant, are by no means anthems like past hits “Ants Marching” or “Tripping Billies.”

It became clear during the show, especially during complex numbers like “Satellite” and “Lie in our Graves” that it was wise to bring Reynolds along to deepen Matthews own sound. Matthews reveled in playing his newer songs, especially those from his solo album “Some Devil.” He also debuted a yet-to-be-named song during the encore that could indicate a new DMB that is venturing into alt-country territory for their next studio album, adding a little spice to the normal DMB formula. The other unreleased songs played were “Sister,” a touching ode to his sister Jane and “Cant’ Stop,” a slightly mournful up-tempo tune he played on his electric guitar instead of his signature acoustic.

The point of this tour is not to promote a specific record, although Matthews did play a few tunes, including the autobiographical “Old Dirt Hill” off 2006’s “Stand Up”, but to reach a new audience. Matthews tried hard to connect with British and European fans at the show, even resorting to local patois during his riffs on everything from little-known British beaches he’s visited to acting and playing piano with British television star Hugh Laurie during Matthews’ guest appearance on Fox’s “House M.D.”

Before the show, Matthews, who now lives in Seattle, was in a Starbucks near Newcastle’s town center, getting a cup of American coffee in a small corner of northern England. No bodyguard, no screaming fans – just a normal guy getting a coffee while Brits read their newspapers.

Matthews is building his British and European fan-base, albeit slowly, at his own pace, playing in tiny, off-the-beaten-path venues and eschewing expensive advertising.

Talking to him briefly after the show, it’s clear he likes it like that, giving the Brits some jam with their tea and bread – winning them over on their terms, not his.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.