DMB Pays Tribute to Late Band Member with a New Album
Observer Scene | Thursday, August 27, 2009
Have you ever been working on a project when life suddenly blasted you with the unexpected, and after that crucial moment the project took on a whole different meaning? That’s what happened to the Dave Matthews Band during the recording of their latest album, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.” They were mining for coal, but an accidental and tragic dynamite explosion blew open a cave of diamonds.
The band’s seventh studio album was released on June 2. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 music chart, the fifth consecutive DMB album to do so. Among hardcore DMB fans, though, the favorites have usually been “Under the Table and Dreaming,” “Crash,” and “Before These Crowded Streets.”
These, the band’s first three albums, have acquired almost canonical status; they are sometimes referred to as “The Big Three.” Holding them up as the standard, everything that Dave Matthews Band has released since has seemed to fall a little short – until now. Critics, casual listeners and diehard fans alike have received “Big Whiskey” as a new masterpiece.
A lot happened in the four years intervening between the band’s last studio album, “Stand Up,” and “Big Whiskey.” On March 6, 2008, it was revealed that the band was working on a new album with producer Rob Cavallo, whose credits include Green Day and Alanis Morissette. Then Butch Taylor, the band’s keyboardist since 2001, announced that he would leave the group on May 27. But the biggest blow came on Aug. 19, when saxophonist LeRoi Moore died from complications to injuries sustained in an ATV accident.
Instead of scrapping the album they had just started working on, Dave Matthews and crew instead pulled together and created possibly their most cohesive and emotionally intense album yet. “Big Whiskey” is a swampy mix of joy, grief, love, pain, drunkenness, God and death. First and foremost, it is a tribute to Moore (GrooGrux was Moore’s nickname). Many of the lyrics reflect on mortality; some even explicitly point to Moore’s death, as in “Why I Am”: “And when my story ends it’s gonna end with him/Heaven or hell, I’m going down with the GrooGrux King.” Not every song relates to Moore’s passing away, but even straightforward love ballads here are tinged with an air of impending fatality.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though; the album never despairs or admits defeat to death. Instead, Matthews preaches acceptance of mortality and carnal reality. At the same time, without condoning or condemning, he questions why things on earth must be so messy and unfair, as in the album’s first single, “Funny the Way It Is”: “Funny the way it is, if you think about it/One kid walks 10 miles to school, another’s dropping out.”
“Big Whiskey” is also pervaded by religious language and imagery that is more explicit than in any other of DMB’s previous albums; in “Time Bomb,” Matthews wails “Baby when I get home/I want to believe in Jesus” in some of his most impassioned singing on the album.
Throughout “Big Whiskey,” the lyrics evoke the tension between a desire to transcend and the tendency to be dragged back to the earth by our own humanity. Elements of funk, African beats, New Orleans jazz and rock give the music a raucous, earthy sound at times, balanced out by the airs of strings and fluttering saxophone on lighter tracks.
The album really runs the gamut of emotions depicted in the chaotic scene of a New Orleans parade on its cover. But wherever Dave Matthews Band take us on “Big Whiskey,” they take us with the surer and sometimes heavier step of a band that has perfected its sound and reached full maturity, though not without a cost. We can only wonder where they will go from here.