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Stay For a While: Dave Matthews Band’s Long Trip Atop Adult Alternative Songs

As it turned out, their improvisational background meshed well with Matthews’ often-fragmented songwriting. The sound arrived, after the addition of bassist Stefan Lessard (a high schooler at the time) and violinist Boyd Tinsley, who split his time between DMB and his own projects until the former’s reception on the college circuit became too heavy to ignore. Within a couple years, DMB was a jam band sensation in Virginia and beyond, attracting the attention of RCA Records — and longtime U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, who flew to New York to convince the group to ditch their original choice for producer.

Lillywhite’s bet paid off. The band’s major label debut, 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, found a massive audience beyond the expected H.O.R.D.E. demographic, an audience that took no issue with the downright Canterburian acoustic guitar/violin//saxophone/bass/drums combination. By now, the arty, abrasive approach of early college rock had ceded to a mellower strain: more optimistic, a little groovier, newly concerned with the concept of roots. The album’s big single was a hit at mainstream rock radio, rather than Triple A: the coffeeshop funker “What Would You Say” (featuring John Popper on harmonica, whose presence is highly distinctive, and Michael McDonald on backing vocals, shockingly not). On the whole, though, Dreaming is a contoured presentation of the group’s existing strengths, with Beauford laying back to put over the sawing “Ants Marching” and the suspended waltz-time balladry of “Satellite,” the group’s first Triple-A hit. 

For their follow-up, 1996’s Crash, Lillywhite and DMB went bigger. Beauford was free to move about the cabin; Matthews and then-unofficial member Tim Reynolds (along with Beauford, a member of the Virginia fusion group Secrets) jacked their acoustic guitars into electric amps; Moore bought a baritone sax to bulk up his swath of sound. Instead of building the record from layered tracks — a standard rock-band procedure the group leaned on for Dreaming — they played live, in a circle, as much as possible. The album’s first couple singles were a jab-cross combo. “Too Much” — the band’s first Triple-A #1 — is a proto-vore anthem whose moreness is quite enough, strutting like peak ‘90s Prince when it’s not holding a hoedown on the bridge or stacking cowbells. Matthews gleefully devours the frantic text like the aspiring actor he once was.

Moore’s one-person sax section gooses the comparatively straightforward “So Much to Say,” a stoner’s rumination on the limits and origins of language. The track would bring Dave Matthews Band their only Grammy, and cemented their status as Airplay Monitor’s Triple-A act of 1996. But it was a third radio single, released in December, that broke the group fully wide: “Crash Into Me” was a lovely chamber-pop march, sung from the perspective of an obsessed voyeur. Thematically and sonically, it was a sort of alt-rock update on Van Morrison’s baroque-blues classic “Cyprus Avenue,” and Matthews’ swooning, declarative text (“I’m bare boned and crazy/For you”) likely opened more notebooks than it closed blinds. 

”Crash” offered a path that Matthews would eagerly revisit at the turn of the century, and it remains the band’s best-known song. In classic jam-band fashion, it’s not a fan favorite. (Unlike pretty much any jam band save Black Crowes, you can split DMB’s output into two complete careers: one for the radio listeners, and one for the real heads.) Crash’s final single “Tripping Billies” was aimed at the latter. A jubilant memento mori with a proggy head, its once-were-partiers outlook and island setting – not to mention Tinsley’s fiddling – paralleled the work of a budding Kenny Chesney. 

Fully confirmed as rock stars, DMB dutifully took on the Difficult Third Album with Before These Crowded Streets, a sprawling, 70-minute collection in which every track save the intro stretched past five minutes. Such was the Band’s following, though, that “Don’t Drink the Water,” their prowling, growling excoriation of genocide, became their second Triple-A #1. (Having Béla Fleck’s banjo and Alanis Morissette’s wail didn’t hurt. Nor did the aural resemblance to Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.”) Streets was their art-rock record: unresolved ballads, double harmonic scale workouts, theatrical gnashing. 

In the middle of this flexing was their third #1: “Stay (Wasting Time)”: a pure pop song, a carnal memory that reveled in the good times while confessing their brevity. It was a cross-format hit for them, as was the jazz-club crooner “Crush,” the group’s first official Billboard Hot 100 hit, following rule changes that allowed songs for the first time to hit the chart without being available for physical single purchase. Once again, the Van spirit was heavy, and the song beguiled both in radio edit and album-length form. Lillywhite had helped his charges construct a commercial powerhouse.

But preparations for a fourth record — now held in the group’s new Charlottesville studio — stalled. The tracks weren’t quite finding form, the vibe wasn’t right. Matthews’s consultation with Glen Ballard led to a crop of brand-new songs. If the rest of the band wasn’t quite feeling 2001’s Everyday (Beauford remarked that it felt like a Matthews/Ballard record), it was certainly easier to tackle. Hardcore fans grabbed the scrapped demos off filesharing sites; at least some of them did so while downloading “I Did It,” which was released to Napster with the band and label’s blessing. The self-referential single buzzed like a cloud of hornets and swung like “Sledgehammer,” and its guitars were unmistakably electric. “The Space Between” was a legitimate power ballad, dominated by an aerial guitar ostinato, and it became the group’s first entry in the Top 40.  

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