Hail the GrooGrux King
How a Tragic Death Brought Dave Matthews Band Back to Life

Before you ask, no, 35 doesn’t feel any different than 34.

Thanks to everyone who sent birthday wishes. I had seven people sing to me, which is a new record. You’re all wonderful people, and I’m so blessed to have you in my life.

So it’ll be a quick one this week, with only one record to discuss. The list of upcoming awesomeness is pretty immense, though. Just in the next two months, new ones are on the way from Sonic Youth, Dredg, Devin Townsend, Street Sweeper Social Club (Tom Morello’s new project), Dream Theater, The Mars Volta, Bjork, Spinal Tap (really!), Moby, Wilco, Son Volt, Oneida, The Dead Weather (Jack White’s new thing), Fiery Furnaces, Riceboy Sleeps (Jonsi from Sigur Ros), and a two-disc rarities thing from Starflyer 59. Yeesh. So there will be no break.

This is not to mention what I have on tap for the next couple of weeks. Next week’s column will be brought to you by the letter E, and the week after that will feature two of the weirdest, most fascinating gimmick albums I’ve seen in ages. Really looking forward to writing that one.

This week, though, the most important album Dave Matthews has ever made.

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It’s not tragedy that defines you, it’s how you react to it. It’s true in life, and it’s true in music.

For instance, when John Bonham died in 1980, that was the end for Led Zeppelin. Plant, Page and Jones knew full well that the magic came from the alchemy of all four members, and without Bonham, it wouldn’t be the same. The Who trundled on for a couple more (sub-par) albums after Keith Moon died in 1978, but eventually came to the same conclusion. And when Freddie Mercury succumbed to an AIDS-related illness in 1992, Queen came to an end. (I know both the Who and Queen subsequently regrouped, but the pale imitations they’ve churned out only prove that they were right to disband in the first place.)

But for some, continuing on is the right choice. When Ian Curtis killed himself in 1980, the remaining members of Joy Division formed New Order, and went on to make some amazing music. The specter of Curtis hung over their first few efforts, but in time, they forged a worthwhile new identity. Likewise, when Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm in 1995 and left R.E.M. two years later, the band continued, and though it’s been a rocky road, they made their best album in more than a decade last year (Accelerate), and seem to be taking new directions.

You can’t plan for it. You can only adapt and react. And it’s always fascinating to me to see just how long-running bands adapt and react to accidents of fate. Some will collapse, but some will continue, and that next album, that next tour, will define who they are. For most bands, the post-tragedy album is the most significant moment of their careers.

Which brings us to Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.

It’s been about a year since LeRoi Moore, saxophone master for the Dave Matthews Band, died from injuries he suffered in an ATV accident. His death was sudden and unexpected – Moore’s accident happened in June of 2008, and left him with broken ribs and a punctured lung, but he was released from the hospital after a couple of days. Complications found him back in the hospital in mid-July, and he died in August. The band kept touring while Moore was recovering, with Flecktones sax man Jeff Coffin sitting in, and actually played a show the night of Moore’s death, delivering a tribute to him from the stage.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. He was the saxophone player. It’s not like John Bonham’s death, or Freddie Mercury’s. And to that I say, you don’t know the Dave Matthews Band. It may be named after the guitarist and singer, but every single member of that band is vital to their sound. Moore wrote songs, arranged them, and added to the intangible, indefinable brew the band concocted. DMB has an unfortunate and mostly undeserved reputation as a hippy-dippy pop act, but in reality, they’re a jazz band with a pop singer. Now, imagine losing the sax player from a jazz band. That’s how big a deal this is.

The question is a valid one: we still have Dave Matthews, and he still has a band, but do we still have the Dave Matthews Band? It’s a question the remaining members have obviously struggled with. But in the end, they’ve decided to continue, at least for now. Moore had completed some sessions for the band’s seventh studio record before his accident, and Matthews and company have decided to complete the album as a tribute to him. They even named it after him – GrooGrux was Moore’s nickname amongst his bandmates.

If you’re expecting a sappy-yet-moving eulogy in musical form, you’re in for a surprise. Matthews and the band chose a different route – they paid respects to Moore by playing their asses off. In many ways (some of them disappointing), Big Whiskey is a typical latter-day Dave Matthews Band album, but it has a phenomenal energy to it, a life pulsing through its veins. It’s easily the best DMB album in more than a decade, if only because it jumps out of the speakers at you instead of lying there flat.

That’s not the only difference. The band hired Rob Cavallo, producer of Green Day’s American Idiot, to helm this one, and he in turn convinced Matthews to crank up the amps. Much of Big Whiskey is saturated big-riff electric guitar, something of a new sound for DMB, and the whole thing is glossy and shiny. This is also the first studio album with Coffin on sax, although some of the lines are obviously Moore, and the first since Before These Crowded Streets in 1998 to feature Tim Reynolds on guitar.

The result is, well, huge. DMB has always had a surprisingly dense sound, but Big Whiskey is the loudest record they’ve made, and their most confident work since Streets. It opens with the only overt tribute to Moore, a saxophone solo called “Grux,” but then slams into the horn-driven “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” and all pretense of a grief-driven album is out the window. “Monkey” is about sex leading to deeper love, and it rocks pretty convincingly. The horns are cheesy, but Matthews locks into a guitar groove, and his rhythm section responds with some of their most awesome studio work ever.

I just want to take a moment here to praise Carter Beauford, one of the best drummers in the business. It hasn’t been quite as apparent on the studio albums lately, but Beauford is heart-stoppingly good, and Big Whiskey finally gives him a chance to shine. Listen to the first single, “Funny the Way It Is” – it’s a decent song, with a nice surprise in the middle, but Beauford just owns this number. He never just drums, he composes these little percussion symphonies under the songs – mute everything else but him, and Big Whiskey would still be a satisfying experience.

The songs are the strongest in ages here, too. “Lying in the Hands of God” – one of several songs that don’t specifically mention Moore, but sound awash in his spirit – is one of the prettiest things the band has written. “Why I Am” does specifically mention Moore (“Still here dancing with the GrooGrux king”), and elevates its simple riff with some superb time changes. “Spaceman” and “Alligator Pie” make room for some nice banjo parts, and while “Time Bomb” starts off slow, with an acoustic guitar and saxophones, it positively erupts halfway through. You’ve never heard Matthews give it his all like he does here.

So what’s the problem? This is another Dave Matthews Band album that doesn’t play to the group’s big strength – its instrumental interplay. It was obviously constructed piece by labor-intensive piece in the studio, and while it’s lively in a way DMB records haven’t been in years, it still never takes flight. In fact, the thudding electric guitar on nearly every song keeps it earthbound and dirty. The last two songs are the most disappointing for me. “Baby Blue” is gorgeous, but is just Matthews on guitar, backed by a string section. It’s not really a Dave Matthews Band song at all. And “You and Me” is a fine little pop song, but the drums are programmed. That’s like using synth strings when you have Yo Yo Ma.

This is not a new problem. DMB’s first three albums were wonderful examples of capturing a band’s live sound in the studio. Before These Crowded Streets, especially, is a fantastic ride, songs extending to seven and eight minutes as the band explores their corners. Then, in 2000, the band fired producer Steve Lillywhite, scrapping months of fruitful sessions, and Matthews took the reins, making Everyday with Glen Ballard. (Yes, the Alanis guy.) It was slick, it was studio-polished, and it wasn’t the Dave Matthews Band.

Since then, every album has been varying shades of the same thing. 2005’s Stand Up was the nadir, but the band has been uninspired in the studio for this entire decade. Big Whiskey goes some distance toward correcting this – “Alligator Pie,” for instance, makes the best use of violinist Boyd Tinsley in a long, long time – but not far enough. The best DMB experience is still the live one.

But Big Whiskey is definitely the band’s finest studio album since Streets, bar none. I’m impressed each time through with the consistency of the songwriting, and with the variety of tones on display. But more than that, Matthews and the band sound reinvigorated, alive and at fighting weight. Perhaps it was the shared desire to make an album worthy of bearing Moore’s nickname on the cover. If so, the struggle was worth it, and the grief has resulted in a winner.

Matthews has said he doesn’t know exactly where the band will go next, now that Big Whiskey is done and out. Maybe they will go nowhere, and quietly disintegrate in the coming months. If so, this album would serve as a fine finale. The last song, “You and Me,” revolves around the line “We can do anything, you and me together,” and it’s a hopeful, beautiful way to go out. If this is the last DMB album, it’s a very good one, and they should be proud. If it isn’t, it points to some new directions, and revives their studio career nicely. Together, they can do anything, and for the first time in a long while, it sounds like the Dave Matthews Band believes this again. That’s all you can ask for, and I’ll bet all LeRoi Moore would have wanted.

See you in line Tuesday morning.