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DMB’s Emotional Tribute to a Friend

Following the death of its sax player, band crafts most intense set yet

Jenny Eliscu May 20, 2009
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The car shuttling Dave Matthews from a private jet to producer Rob Cavallo’s Los Angeles home edges onto the freeway, and the singer reaches behind the seat to grab a copy of his band’s seventh studio album, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. After rambling about the “slammin’ latte” he picked up in Seattle before boarding, he debates whether the speakers in his publicist’s car are up to the task. “This is a good record,” Matthews says. “Even people who don’t like Dave Matthews Band are going to like this record ”“ and if they don’t, then they just don’t like music.”

Big Whiskey is DMB’s heaviest album yet, both musically and emotionally. The disc opens with an effortless cascade of unaccompanied notes by late Dave Matthews Band saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died last summer as a result of an ATV accident outside the band’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. As the album-opening interlude explodes into the deep, atmospheric funk of ”˜Shake Me Like a Monkey,’ Matthews, dressed in boots, jeans and a black T-shirt, gestures to his publicist in the rearview mirror: thumb to the sky, as if to say, “Turn it up.”

Moore’s death came relatively early in the recording process, which began in Seattle in early 2008 and concluded with seven weeks in New Orleans this winter. DMB picked Cavallo, best known for his work with Green Day and My Chemical Romance, to help them explore more dramatic, riff-based textures. “I spoke with other people that had lots of ideas for how they would record the band,” says Matthews. “Which made me think, ”˜Fuck you. You don’t have a fucking clue how to record this band, because nobody does ”“ yet. We have a new style.’ ”

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Rather than falling back on its regular process ”“ Matthews would usually bring in melodic ideas or lyrics ”“ the group built the tunes on brief improvised riffs it came up with in the studio. “We weren’t sitting around noodling for hours,” says the singer. “We would find something, play it, sit on it for 10 or 15 minutes, then stop.”

After coming up with about a hundred of these fragments, the band selected 20 of them to work on more intensively. Cavallo was brought in as the group began to turn these little grooves into songs. As Matthews began to write lyrics, he kept in mind something Moore had told him about great music being honest above all else. “You just knew there was no compromise,” says Cavallo. “We were there to support Dave trying to dig deeper to get down to a pure place. When all of a sudden the words started to come, it was amazing.”

The album covers a wide span of moods ”“ from the anthemic and life-affirming ”˜Dive In’ to bawdy love songs like ”˜Spaceman’ and ”˜Shake Me Like a Monkey’ to the ominous, bombastic ”˜Squirm.’ It’s bigger-sounding and, at times, more adventurous than DMB’s past work ”“ the Foo Fighters-style rocker ”˜Timebomb’ finds Matthews shifting from a gentle falsetto to a scream he describes as “one of the most joyful noises I’ve ever made.”

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The band felt a special pressure to make Moore’s final album as good as it could be: Throughout, drummer Carter Beauford beats out elaborate, propulsive grooves; bassist Stefan Lessard lays down Flea-style funk bass lines; violinist Boyd Tinsley plays cresting, intense runs; and Matthews mirrors Moore’s saxophone lines with scatlike singing.

“There’s so much LeRoi on this record,” Matthews says, sipping an espresso in Cavallo’s kitchen. “The greatest tragedy is that Roi’s not here to see it, because he would be over the moon. He only heard four of the songs, and I remember him telling me, ”˜This album’s going to be the best one.’ ”

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