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Dave Matthews campaigns for Barack Obama on tour

Bob Costa | Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dave Matthews, the popular vocalist and guitarist best known for fronting his eponymous Grammy-winning rock band, has been actively campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Matthews spoke with The Observer last week about Obama, politics and his band’s recent music projects before taking the stage at Indiana University for a free acoustic concert promoting Obama’s campaign, attended by over 17,000 students. Guitarist Tim Reynolds accompanied Matthews at the Indiana concert. Reynolds is Matthews’ long-time friend and playing partner who has played at Notre Dame’s Legends club twice in recent years.

“It’s an interesting time,” said Matthews about the 2008 presidential race. “It’s been about 40 years since we’ve had a candidate that really inspires young people in a large way.”

Matthews publicly announced his endorsement of Obama in February, via a letter to fans. Matthews’ campaign activities for Obama are not his first foray into politics. Dave Matthews Band played on the 2004 “Vote for Change” tour with artists such as R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen. They also played at President Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Ball in January 1997.

A big part of why Matthews supports Obama’s campaign is the Illinois senator’s position on the war in Iraq. But Matthews sees more than just an anti-war appeal in Obama.

“A big part of it, for me, is the dimension of his ideas,” Matthews said. “I think he does have real plans, although often the argument against him is that he’s all talk in a way. I think his ideas are real and I think his plans are real.

“But more than that is sort of a philosophy that goes along with what he says. I think what this country needs more than anything is a leader that will inspire us to do our best and to get involved in the political system. I think it’s really important that we have someone that raises our stakes, or makes us feel as though we are more than a consumer – that we’re citizens.”

Matthews and his band have sold 31 million albums in the United States and won a Grammy Award in 1997. Beyond his band’s success, Matthews said he feels that it is important for him to speak up on national issues.

“I believe that everyone should have their own opinion and I believe everyone should act on what they think is right in a democracy,” Matthews said. “But, I don’t mind standing up and saying what I believe. Hopefully I can inspire some people to register to vote and hopefully most of those will register to vote and go for Obama.”

Matthews does not worry about any negative response among conservative fans or supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“I don’t think that I inspire a backlash,” Matthews said. “I do think that it’s important for us to say what we think. I don’t think that it’ll alienate my fans, they’ll probably just check their messages while I’m talking, if they really don’t want to listen, and just wait for me to start singing.”

The concert in Bloomington was overflowing with college students – the bulk of Matthews’ fan base.

“Young people have been excluded, just uninspired to a large degree, by the political system here in America for quite a while,” Matthews said. “Often, the views that they reflect are the views of their parents.”

Matthews was passionate when speaking to reporters about why the 2008 campaign offers many young people the opportunity to engage in politics.

“The candidates are really interesting in this race and may well inspire kids to change their minds and get more involved,” Matthews said. “I think the young vote, in a sense, is the most important vote because it’s the vote for their future. They have the most at stake and they have big ideas. Getting those qualities involved in the political system will improve it.”

Matthews, who spent part of his youth in South Africa under apartheid, was impressed by Obama’s March 18 speech in Philadelphia on race in America in the wake of the fracas over videos of sermons given by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor from Chicago.

“I admired his response to the scandalous allegations about him being connected to the statements of his pastor,” Matthews said. “I thought his response was to make it into an opportunity to discuss race relations, rather to react and start defending himself. It was a beautiful speech. I was surprised by the eloquence of it – in the midst of all that scandal and the sort of fast-editing of news channels – that what he said cut through so beautifully.”

Matthews believes that Obama’s eloquence on America’s race relations is a major factor in his admiration of the Democratic senator.

“[Race] is an issue to me that has been swept under the rug in this country,” Matthews said. “Somehow people don’t feel it needs to be addressed, we just pretend it’s somehow past and that we’ll get over it eventually. I think the way [Obama] addressed it was incredible, actually.”

Reynolds publicly supported progressive Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich in his 2004 and 2008 campaigns for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Matthews was quick to point out that he supports Kucinich as well. “Dennis Kucinich is awesome,” said Matthews, adding that he and Reynolds “agree on political issues more than disagree.”

Outside of his political activities, Matthews has been busy as of late, including talking with the Dalai Lama in Seattle and recording a new studio album with his band. Reynolds joined Dave Matthews Band in the studio for the first time since 1998.Reynolds has been happy with the recording process so far. “It’s really great,” Reynolds said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

“We [DMB] are laughing a lot, which I think is important,” Matthews said about his band’s current studio work. “We’re all writing together.”

Dave Matthews Band, a member of the RCA label, last released a studio album in 2005, produced by Mark Batson and entitled “Stand Up.” Reynolds and Matthews released a live album of their acoustic show at Radio City Music Hall in 2007. Their current recording sessions are different than for “Stand Up,” Matthews said.

“It’s a change right now,” Matthews said. “It’s difficult to be in an organization, a group of people, in a gang that stays the same for so long. There’s a lot of crap that comes along with it. This time, for whatever reason, it’s really open and we’re in each other’s faces a lot. It’s good.”

Green Day and Goo Goo Dolls producer Rob Cavallo is turning the knobs for DMB this time in the studio. Matthews has been impressed by Cavallo’s work.

“He’s just sort of slipped in like one of us,” Matthews said. “He’s very subtle. I enjoy having him there. He’s very involved in the whole process. We’re all very calm in there and the music is what seems to be inspired.”

Reynolds, who last played at Legends in February with his band TR3, played a seventeen-song set in front of a capacity crowd at Indiana. The set was highlighted by a lush rendition of the Dave Matthews Band rarity “The Dreaming Tree,” Reynolds’ solo on his instrumental song “Stream,” and a funky take on “Save Me,” a track off Matthews’ 2003 solo album “Some Devil.”

Reynolds and Matthews, when they’re together, bring out the best in each other. Backstage, Reynolds and Matthews were amiable with Obama staffers and other reporters, ribbing each other good-naturedly and laughing in the Hoosiers’ locker room under the Assembly Hall bleachers.

Matthews first met Reynolds in the late-1980s in Charlottesville, Va., where Matthews was a bartender and Reynolds was an older, well-known local musician. Soon after they met, Reynolds and Matthews began to play music together, with Reynolds eventually encouraging Matthews to begin his own band. How does Reynolds explain the unique chemistry between these long-time friends? “It’s the Einstein equation,” said Reynolds with a laugh.

Reporter Bob Costa’s interview with Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds will air on NDtv on Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 11:00 PM ET. NDtv is available on channel 53 on the Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College campuses, as well as channel 121-8 on Comcast Digital in the South Bend, Ind., area.

The views expressed in Scene & Heard are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Observer.

Bob Costa can be reached at [email protected]