Since its inception in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1991, the Dave Matthews Band has watched its fortunes grow like a well-tended pot plant. Over the past decade, it has gone on to release seven albums and sell more than fifteen million units, performing tirelessly for SRO audiences worldwide and cultivating the reputation as a premier live act. With the expiration of the Grateful Dead, the DMB has stepped up and given the eternal jam band legacy new life. The group has taken the laid-back hippie-folk R&B improvisation groove and added touches of world beat, jazz, and funk to accommodate the Think Global, Act Local vibe that permeates its audience's expectations like lingering patchouli. In Dave Matthews the grassroots collective finds new strength. His average-guy appearance, his band's dedication to musicianship over flash, its freewheelin' attitude toward tape traders -- and vehement repudiation of bootleggers charging dollars -- makes Matthews the kind of guy you can't really dislike.
His audience has taken on the trappings of a large cult, however. And it's there that the discomfort sets in. Cults by definition are self-satisfied groups in which rules are understood early and any deviation from expectation becomes a felonious act. Audience members memorize the rituals, don the attire, and accept the attitude. Whether it's the excessive piercings of the Goth crew or, as in Matthews's case, the postcollegiate standard-issue backward baseball cap and J. Crew catalogue extracts. Artists themselves are rewarded for filling shoes, not for redesigning them. The pattern a band establishes at the onset of its career becomes the treadmill it runs from birth to death. This isn't the problem. Most groups would be more than happy to find a niche and fill it. And most people who find others they can relate to are pleased to settle in as well. To outsiders the entire relationship is an inscrutable puzzle with no answer key worth seeking.
You can guess which side of the fence I'm leaning toward. For me it began early. Upon first hearing the Dave Matthews Band's debut album Remember Two Things, a self-released record recorded live at the Muse Music Club on Nantucket in 1993, I was not blown away by its antsy, staccato sound. (Ants Marching indeed!) I really hadn't given it much thought until a year or so later, when I was informed by a publicist then working at BMG Music that this rather lamely named band (allegedly by the time the group got around to thinking about a real name, DMB had already stuck) was whooping it up on the college circuit, and the debut album that hadn't impressed me much was looming around gold status.
The world is filled with things I can't explain or understand. And why the Dave Matthews Band caught on with such fervor is one of them. Its 1994 BMG/RCA debut Under the Table and Dreaming, the group's first proper studio release, went on to sell more than four million copies, and the band truly established itself with MTV videos and a slot on the HORDE Tour. By the time it released its third album, Crash, in 1996, DMB was nearly as big as Hootie and the Blowfish. But whereas Hootie's rocket climb up the Billboard charts with standard AOR fare obscured whatever reputation as a hard-working live band it might have had, DMB's emphasis on polyrhythms and slightly angular lyric concerns gave it an unspoken but strongly felt aura of a band with substance.
Heading off the bootleggers, DMB made its smartest move yet. October 1997 saw the group release the two-disc collection Live at Red Rocks 8-15-95. The band since has gone with this program and issued two additional live recordings: a duet album between Matthews and touring guitarist Tim Reynolds, Live at Luther College: An Acoustic Performance by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds; and Listener Supported, a double-disc collection of live performances. That the band only managed one studio album during this time, 1998's Before These Crowded Streets, with a new studio album planned for late 2000, is indicative of where it probably will go. Just as the Grateful Dead eventually turned away from the efforts of songwriting and new studio product, DMB is likely to be one of those groups that issues more live albums than studio releases. (For what it's worth, it took the Rolling Stones twenty years or so before they headed in this direction). To which it can half-heartedly be said, Well, it's a better idea than the Doors, who repackage their greatest hits more often than they once made albums. But really, how many different ways can you say the same thing?