It’s now been a decade since saxophonist LeRoi Moore‘s passing. Thinking of that this past weekend has pushed me to finally jot down some thoughts on the band as a whole, and how 2018 has seen DMB fully realize what, in my opinion, it has been inching toward for well over a decade. While LeRoi’s passing didn’t kick-start this evolution, it arguably accelerated it to a degree. And, given that it was such a (tragic) milestone in the band’s history, it’s natural that it played at least some sort of factor, even if not as large as one as may initially seem.
Equally noteworthy, at a minimum, in the band’s evolution was the 2008 tour itself, which of course coincided with Moore’s accident and subsequent death and Jeff Coffin‘s joining the band partway through as a replacement. Even before Moore’s accident, the 2008 tour included:
– Tim Reynolds’s return as a touring member and, though unknown at the time, a full-time member in his own right. (In years past he was an “unofficial sixth member,” along with Peter Griesar from the early 90s and Butch Taylor in the late 90s through 2007.)
– Butch Taylor’s sudden departure on the tour’s eve.
– An explosion of cover songs in rotation in the set list (e.g., “Money,” “Money, That’s What I Want,” “Sledgehammer,” “Burning Down the House,” etc.).
– Some Devil songs regularly joining the setlist rotation.
(- Jeff Coffin eventually joining the band partway through the tour after Moore’s accident.)
I won’t re-hash old posts here, but a brief word on each of those points. I’ve written about this before, but Tim Reynolds’s guitar stylings while playing with the full band ’91-’98 are vastly different from ’08-present. (This is entirely separate from his playing with Dave on their acoustic tours, which continued throughout this whole time period, including the early ’00s.) In that first decade, even though he played electric guitar with a mostly acoustic ensemble, his playing fit within the band’s overall sound—part of the texture, often felt instead of heard. Upon his return, however, he cranked up the volume and gave the band a much more explicitly “rock” sound, and his presence couldn’t be mistaken.
Tim’s approach strongly complemented the new cover songs that debuted in 2008, both in style and arrangement: “Money” (Pink Floyd), “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel), “Burning Down the House” (Talking Heads), “Hey Hey My My” (Neil Young), “Money, That’s What I Want” (Berry Gordy & Janie Bradford), “Bitch” (Rolling Stones), and “Thank You” (Sly & The Family Stone; formerly covered by Dave Matthews & Friends but not by DMB). Also noteworthy is that most of these cover songs lack a non-guitar solo (like the original), save “Money.” I write “style and arrangement” because these covers, unlike their most well-known previous covers performed with varying regularity (“All Along the Watchtower,” “The Maker,” “Long Black Veil,” “Angel From Montgomery”), were pretty straightforward. 2008’s then-new covers were less about being new versions of existing songs than they were with creating a fun vibe to add to the party-like atmosphere. Those that remain in 2018—e.g., “Sledgehammer” and “Burning Down the House”—haven’t much changed in arrangement over the last decade.
Of course, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect at work here. Did the band’s approach to covers at all influence Tim’s approach to DMB’s catalogue—the prominent lead guitar needed for Pink Floyd then being mapped to Dave Matthews Band? Hard to say, but I’ve always wondered. After all, it’d be a little jarring to hear the DMB of 2007 or 2000 and then, midway through the set, be blasted by “Sledgehammer.” Even though Dave began selectively playing electric guitar live in 2001, “Eh Hee” or “So Right” didn’t provide the same wailing lead guitar as Pink Floyd’s “Money.”
Of course, it could be that Dave took the reins a little more aggressively and decided that that’s the sound he wanted…
In the past, it’s been noted here and there that the band—or at least select band members—had been pushing Dave to take up some more directional leadership within the group. Around the Lillywhite Sessions fallout and Everyday sessions, I got the impression in interviews that the band was going through the motions and rudderless (before Everyday), and that going into the studio for Everyday with Dave having already written much of the music with producer Glenn Ballard and providing charts to the band put some fresh wind under the band’s wings. And again, before LeRoi’s death, supposedly LeRoi told Dave in a moment of candor that he (Matthews) needed to lead the band and take charge.
Then there was the sudden departure of Butch Taylor for “personal reasons” right before the 2008 tour’s kickoff. It was never made publicly clear why he backed out, but speculation ran wild on message boards.* I felt like I was in the minority much of the time, but I was and remain a big fan of Butch Taylor’s playing, both with and without DMB. Even though I was gaining Tim Reynolds in 2008, it hurt to lose Butch Taylor. Perhaps Tim’s playing was a way to account for both electric guitar and a lost keyboardist? Who knows.
[*I try to avoid message boards—on DMB and anything else—completely, but this was one of 4 times I dove in to that toxic fever swamp as a reader-only for DMB material. The other three were this year: Boyd’s departure, Boyd’s #MeToo moment, and the 2018 tour kickoff. Every time I left exhausted and needing a shower. Woof. No more.]
[A digression, just to state this for the record: one of my first selfish thoughts upon learning of the possibility of both Tim Reynolds and Butch Taylor touring with DMB in 2008 (before Taylor’s departure) was the genesis and rapid blossoming of my wanting to see what would, for me, be the ultimate cover song that DMB could rip through: Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding.” Piano-driven rock with a strong lead guitar line, and the horns could provide some solid wall-of-sound harmonies throughout. My hopeless wishing was renewed this summer with the addition of Buddy Strong, but I’m certainly not holding my breath. (While I’m at it, EJ’s “My Father’s Gun” and “Burn Down the Mission” too, and both would be great with The Lovely Ladies…)]
With a few sporadic and rare exceptions, much of Dave Matthews’s solo album Some Devil wasn’t performed with the full band until 2008. And it didn’t take long for those solo songs to find a natural home in the DMB rotation, particularly “So Damn Lucky” and “Gravedigger.” The former quickly transformed early in the tour—the iterations I saw in Chicago (6/6), Detroit (6/9), and Buffalo (6/17) kept getting respectively longer, inching toward the large live jam it became by mid-summer.
Finally, of course, Jeff Coffin joined the band (becoming a full-time, permanent replacement), filling in for LeRoi Moore. I attended Jeff’s fourth show of that run (Rothbury 7/5/08), and it was wild seeing him up there with the music stand for the horn lines and then ripping during the solos. The latter part is notable in the respect that, before his accident, LeRoi Moore seemed to be playing fewer and/or shorter solos at the beginning of the tour, either splitting those duties even more with trumpeter Rashawn Ross or handing some over to Tim Reynolds. (I was particularly struck by his lack of solo on “#41” on 6/17, but those backing horn lines under Tim’s solo scratched me where I itched.) I knew there was talk throughout the band’s history of Roi’s wanting to eventually develop a full horn section. It took ~15 years to add a second horn, and the workload gradually evened out over the subsequent years, with Rashawn regularly guesting in the latter half of 2005, becoming a full-time touring member in 2006. Perhaps with Tim’s returning to the fold, Roi considered it an opportunity to build up the horn section as an entity? It’s another thought I’ve returned to many times over the years.
Along with Jeff’s solos, though, there’s another aspect that caught my eye. With now three virtuosic soloists (Jeff Coffin, Tim Reynolds, Rashawn Ross) hungry to play and make music with one another, what was violinist Boyd Tinsley to do? Continue with the same old tired and out-of-tune pentatonic scales and lukewarm enthusiasm save his one or two nightly solos? Again, it was around this time that my friend turned to me at the Gorge and remarked, “Where’s Boyd?” Even in 2007, though he was already a musical liability, there was still room sonically for Boyd’s melodies, countermelodies, and solos. In 2008, there was significantly less, with even less each subsequent year.
That was 2008. En route to 2018…
Beyond “new” members, the other original members kept on making music and advancing. Bassist Stefan Lessard particularly comes to mind, having pursued some Berklee College of Music coursework some years back. (I believe he was inspired by Rashawn Ross, an alumnus.) I remember thinking of the Rashawn/Berklee inspiration at night three of The Gorge in 2011 when Stefan opted to play the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite I for unaccompanied cello as the intro to “All Along the Watchtower,” with Jeff and Rashawn watching with particularly rapt attention. That, and Stefan’s penchant for effects and hardware seems to have grown since Tim’s re-joining in ’08.
I’ve documented much of my thoughts many of the band’s developments elsewhere (here and here and here). In short, Tim gradually became a gargantuan sonic presence, Boyd became obviously irrelevant, the horn section evolved and became often a single entity, and the new songs reflected all of these changes. The band that originally went from local Charlottesville phenomenon to commercial juggernaut—the mostly acoustic band with no lead guitar and a sax and fiddle—became a full-on rock band with horns, especially from 2008 to this year. Enter Come Tomorrow, which completed the process.
I won’t write a full review of the album here, but it’s worth at least a surface-level discussion. In short, my thoughts after the first listen were:
– I liked it overall, despite “The Girl Is You.”
– As an album, it’s a bit of an odd entity.
– In context, the transformation was now complete.
I do like the album, and I’ve listened to it a lot this summer. But, to me, even more than Away From the World, Come Tomorrow is almost more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. Almost. The identifiable horns are still there, and it helps that it includes some existing songs—including 2006’s “Idea Of You” and “Can’t Stop” and 2015’s “Virginia In The Rain,” “Black and Blue Bird,” “Again and Again” (formerly “Boblaw”—my personal favorite of the album), and “Be Yourself” (now “bkdkdkdd”). Boyd plays on only one track, “Idea Of You,” and it’s likely that his part was recorded years ago. And there’s only one horn solo on the whole album, a few seconds of Coffin’s soprano saxophone on “Black and Blue Bird”—track 10, deep into the album.
I consider it an “odd entity” because not only are some of the songs older, but the album was recorded over a ~12-year+ period and utilized four separate producers (Mark Batson, Rob Cavallo, John Alagia, and Rob Evans). The album’s not as cohesive a unit as others in my opinion, as it goes in many different directions, and the lack of a single producer keeps it from feeling completely unified, at least sonically. That said, it still mostly works, and it’s a rocking good time.
All that said, I like the album (save “The Girl Is You,” which is okay live—it’s the first studio recording I’ve yet to warm to in some respect), and to me it fits in the overall canon. Hell, even LeRoi Moore makes a couple of appearances, having participated in the early sessions for “Can’t Stop” and “Idea of You.” But it’s definitely a statement that this is a band unapologetically plowing ahead with its current iteration, be it DMB 3.0 or 4.0 depending on whom you ask. Whereas 2012’s Away From the World had a veneer of going back to the square one after 2009’s sonic memorial Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King—having Steve Lillywhite produce, including horn and violin solos (Boyd gets the album’s first solo break!), etc.—to me, it still sounded like more of a Dave Matthews solo record than a DMB album. In fact, I could make the case that Come Tomorrow is as big of a statement about the band’s sound, if not bigger, than Everyday was in 2001. (In brief, just because Dave played electric, the sax and violin still carried the melodic weight, among other aspects. It sounded new, but the structure remained the same. Here, however, the structure is explicitly changed.)
[Song selection aside, the album’s personnel dwarfs Before These Crowded Streets and covers a wide berth: both Butch Taylor and Buddy Strong on keys, the Lovely Ladies (Tawatha Agee, Candice Anderson, Sharon Bryant-Gallwey), and a panoply of auxiliary musicians including some notable names, including the one and only Luis Conte on percussion.]
With Come Tomorrow, however, it’s as if Dave made the decision to stand proud and say “this is who we are now, and we’re happy with it.” And, as far as I can tell, the band agrees and is equally enthusiastic. In fact, the best way I can really describe it is that I see 2018’s DMB as meaning Dave Matthews’s Band instead of (the) Dave Matthews Band. While still a group effort, I get the impression that Dave is more comfortable providing some sort of direction than in the past. Something I’ve noticed in interviews this summer is that he regularly refers to “my band.” While not the first time he’s said it, I didn’t notice that as much in the past. (Perhaps he said it often and it didn’t catch my attention.) And that’s not to say it’s meant at all negatively. Not at all. But it’s different from “our band” or “the band.”
On another personnel-related note, he did finally directly address Boyd Tinsley’s departure in a recent interview on iHeartRadio’s Inside the Studio podcast. In short, he admits to firing Tinsley for not pulling his weight, and that it was a long time coming. (And after the subsequent sexual harassment allegations against Tinsley, I doubt Boyd will be returning anytime soon…)
This may seem like a recipe for a real mixed bag on stage: one near-founding member gone, Dave taking control, and the addition of a new touring member (and what I assume to be full-time member) in keyboardist Buddy Strong. But after seeing three shows on this summer’s tour and listening to others in addition to it, I can safely say two things about Dave Matthews Band in 2018:
– This is the BEST the band has sounded live in AT LEAST a decade, if not more.
– It’s obvious that the band members are having a lot of fun playing together this year.
As an ensemble, the band sounds great. Not once during any of the shows I attended did I remotely miss Boyd’s playing or any of his musical parts. Beyond that, Buddy Strong fits nicely into the band—always felt, even if not explicitly heard. And Tim Reynolds has dialed back the sonic onslaught. He still shreds when required, but when he’s playing rhythm guitar it’s in the background, which wasn’t always the case in recent years. It’s a nice mix of ’90s Tim and early ’10s Tim.
As a quick example regarding much of what’s mentioned above, take DMB’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” one version from 2008 and another from this summer (where I was dancing in the audience).
2008’s “Sledgehammer” with overpowering electric guitar and a superfluous Tinsley at Mile High Music Festival:
2018’s “Sledgehammer” at SPAC:
What’s more, the band members are having fun. I’ve heard Dave say as much onstage and in interviews more times this summer than I have in probably the last decade combined. Not that they’ve been dourly going through the motions in years past. But between cutting loose the dead weight (Boyd Tinsley), bringing in some fresh blood with Buddy Strong, and the focus and clarity involved with incorporating the new album’s songs and arrangements into the rotation, it’s a recipe for success that has worked swimmingly this year.
The onstage enthusiasm around Strong is palpable and reminiscent of that around Jeff Coffin’s joining (despite the tragic consequences that caused it), and also that of Rashawn Ross.
As with any change, there are members of the fan community griping about Strong’s addition, Tinsley’s departure, the band’s sound, etc. I have copious thoughts on those complaints, but it’s not worth wasting the time on it here. Suffice it to say that there’s only one direction to go: forward. Miles Davis wasn’t playing “Autumn Leaves” and “Four” in the seventies and eighties; John Coltrane eventually stopped playing “Blue Train”; and Radiohead likely won’t be playing Pablo Honey front-to-back anytime soon. Artists will grow and evolve, for the better or worse. I’m pleased with where things are headed musically with DMB in 2018 and beyond. While Come Tomorrow won’t knock Crash off its pedestal anytime soon, what it signals is certainly reassuring to this longtime fan.