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Dave Matthews Band get on up

Hard to believe, but a band with a saxophonist and violin player in its lineup, a band that plays a hybrid of funk, bluegrass, jazz and world music (usually in the same song) is the biggest rock band in the USA. Their guitars aren’t even electric for chrissakes.

But listen to the live bonus disc on ‘Stand Up’, the Dave Matthews Band’s latest album, and you’ll understand why the quintet have sold some 10-million concert tickets. Their prolonged freeform jams, mentioned in the same breath as those of the Grateful Dead, ensure that every night punters are guaranteed one helluva show.

So it’s no surprise that the band are due to make an estimated $40-million in ticket sales on its current tour. Or that they’ve released an unprecedented six live albums in the past 12 years.

While that equals their tally of studio projects over the same period, it’s indicative of DMB’s greatest flaw — their songs only truly come alive, if you will, in a live setting. Which means that, despite selling well and featuring such strong material as ‘What Would You Say?’, ‘So Much To Say’, ‘Space Between’, the band’s studio albums have never quite captured the magical heights or even vibe of their stage performances.

The same goes for ‘Stand Up’ which tries to up their hip quotient. Why else would they hire a producer who’s worked with Eminem and 50 Cent?

But Mark Batson hasn’t turned the Dave Matthews Band into profanity-spouting, gold-medallion-wearing rapper homeboys. His main contribution is to balance the virtuoso instrumental breakouts of their earlier offerings with the refined, mainstream-hugging sound of 2001’s ‘Everyday’. Which means that — apart from a crisper sound, shorter songs, gruffer vocals from our man Dave and a smattering of r&b beats — it’s business as usual for the band.

So ‘Dreamgirl’ juxtaposes African chanting, tumble-weed-blowing-across-the-street Springsteen folk, subtle flourishes of jazzy brass and a violin from one of those Josh Groban-type ditties. And, as you’ve come to expect, it all gels effortlessly into a radio-friendly package of mass seduction. Sheer genius.

‘Stand Up’ is equally catchy — built up around a dirty blues guitar riff, smokin’ sax blasts, and some rowdy backing vocals it sounds like a bunch of buddies having fun on the stage of a smoky, sleazy bar. Adding to the effect, but detracting from the song, is Mr Matthews running out of words after a minute or so.

Rather unusual for a lyricist of his reputation but he makes amends on ‘Everybody wake up’ a call to arms for the American public by the boy from Durban, its political message hidden behind a sublime piece of bluegrass country rock grunge. The empowerment message continues on ‘You might die trying’ (“To change the world, start with one step”) — this time more overtly as the words are initially uttered over a subdued acoustic guitar strum that’s gradually reinforced by an electric six-string, clockwork drumming, muted organ, sultry saxophone, pseudo-industrial beats and even a country and western fiddle jig.

But just when you think the band couldn’t fit any more instruments into one song, they strip back completely on its successor, the piano ballad ‘Steady as we go’. Yet, despite its relative restraint, it sounds as bloated as an ’80s power ballad or the love theme from a sappy movie.

It’s one of the few overt missteps on ‘Dream On’, the quintet wisely avoiding the slush elsewhere: ‘Hunger for the great light’, despite its pretentious title, is as frantic as it is powerful; ‘Old dirt hill’ is classic rhythm and blues updated by Batson’s modern urban grooves, which do sit a little umcomfortably and ‘Hello again’ is the sound of a dusty rodeo. ‘Louisiana bayou’ is really the only other clunker — Dave and the boys just trying way too hard to capture the sounds of Cajun fried chicken and grits.

But considering their extensive virtual trek across the musical landscape of the USA (and a tiny corner of Africa) it’s not a bad showing — and now they’re armed with a clutch of new tracks sure to serve them well on that trip to the country’s stadiums.

  • This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.

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