Over the course of six albums, Dave Matthews has achieved so much more than success. The South African born singer has proved that an average-looking, everyday-kinda guy can compete with the image obsessed waifs on the charts. He’s brought back the improvisational jam band after the demise of The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. He’s introduced the world to Vusi Mahlasela. And he’s given the flute its rightful place on the top 40.
But while the mainstream popularity of Matthews’ folk-jazz-blues-rock might still be surprising to some, ‘The Best Of What’s Around’ reveals just why the Durban boy has hit it so big: he and his band have produced some genuinely good songs — musically ambitious but irresistibly appealing.
Offerings like ‘What Would You Say’, may feature an intricate Stevie Wonder-rivalling harmonica solo but it’s also the most fun you can pack into three minutes and 42 seconds. Packed with mood and time changes ‘Crash Into Me’ may be more subdued than usual but comes armed with a killer melody. And who can’t help smiling when Matthews taunts: “I’m the king of the castle”?
It’s impossible not to swing to the stop-start funk of ‘Rapunzel’, which crams more ideas (and violining) into one song than should really be allowed, have your mood lifted by the saxophone-led ‘Grey Street’, or tap your feet to the neatly packaged ‘American Baby’.
And the quieter moments — even those that hint at the darkness so prevalent on Matthews’ solo work — are accompanied by simple beauty. ‘Crush’ is both tasteful and majestic, the dark clouds that are the verses of ‘The Space Between’ disappear with the sunny chorus, and ‘Grace Is Gone’ is buoyed by some lush instrumentation from saxophonist Leroi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley.
But, to be pernickety, ‘The Best Of What’s Around’ is a bit of a misnomer. With the tracklisting made up of two songs from each of the band’s albums, there are bound to be some obvious omissions — like ‘Don’t Drink The Water’, ‘Stay’, and ‘Ants Marching’. It’s a situation partly (and rather cleverly) rectified by the collection’s second disc: eight live recordings from various points in their career. After all, DMB are renowned for their epic shows and jamming fetish, stretching songs to absolute breaking point.
So an 11-minute version of live favourite ‘Warehouse’ morphs into the classic ‘Louie Louie’ and a samba session. An equally long rendition of ‘Everyday’ turns into an uplifting gospel-styled African chant led by the golden-voiced Mahlasela. And a barnstorming take on concert staple ‘Two Step’ to an enraptured audience again reveals the Dave Matthews Band’s twin-pronged attack: musical prowess combined with the common touch.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.