Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

Let me preface: Dave Matthews Band and i have a very spotty history at best.  Starting around the time of Crash, i started to get really into them, listening to that album pretty regularly, followed with a purchase of Under the Table and Dreaming. I kept finding more and more to like, but then i discovered punk. Punk, in essence saved me from becoming the rabid DMB fan you see in colleges and at Burning Man. While i still liked what i had heard, i decided that it wasn’t for me, and that punk was the new way to go. Fast forward to high school, hearing Before These Crowded Streets and only taking in the seeming confusion that was the album, i realized that DMB might be worth looking into again. I sought after The Lillywhite Sessions, walked miles to get a copy of Busted Stuff, etc. Long story short, I took in all forms of Dave, he and Tim Reynolds solo albums, DMB live albums, anything with his name attached.

That is until the quality of the product started drooping. I somehow missed Everyday upon its release, and went back to it later. It was, for lack of a better word, poor. The songs were too pop, they style of the album seemingly changed to get the most airplay possible, instead of playing unbridled jams as they did in concert, or restrained (but only a little) jazz-jam fusion as they did on the superb Before these Crowded Streets. I gave Stand Upa chance, but still was turned off. But when i heard buzz for Big Whiskey, i felt i owed it to the band to check it out.

And i am still undecided as to whether or not it was a good find or not. Don’t get me wrong the album is very ambitious, and i respect the band for playing on and recording (and using) material after the death of founding sax player LeRoi Moore’s death last summer.  After Moore’s death, the band recruited Jeff Coffin, a sax player from Bela Fleck’s  band to take his place.The album does nothing to tell you which tracks were played by which player, and interestingly enough, it strengthens that material for me.

But even as good as the album is, there is something missing, but it is something i am unable to pinpoint. The songs are all very good; stylistically they hearken back to older DMB tunes, 70’s horn sections, (especially on ‘Shake me Like a Monkey’), and electric, almost balls out rock. 2 things ground this as a DMB album, one being Lessard’s percussion, which is an almost unmistakable feature of the band’s albums, and stay true to the jam band roots that Dave has grown from. The other is obviously the vocal. Matthews’ vocals are unmistakable, and he does nothing different here. Take it as a good thing or not, but it is mre of the same patented howl that moves over the upbeat tracks and the same brooding that haunts the slow ballads.

Gone also is Matthew’s as the lone guitar player. Tim Reynolds, a (read: more talanted) guitar player and frequent collaborator of Matthews’ plays here, injecting some much appreciated guitar oomph. Rashawn Ross makes his studio album debut, after being the band’s stage trumpeter since 2006, and his input is also for the better. Banjo makes an appearance as well, and i have to say, a good banjo in a non-country song almost makes said song instantly likeable.

The subject material, as can be assumed, is fairly morbid. The death of a close friend will do that to a person, but somehow this album comes out ahead of Busted Stuff in terms of positive mood. Expertly written tracks have catchy hooks, and the choruses had me singling along after just a few listens. The single ‘Funny the Way it is’ is the perfect example of why peoploe used to buy albums based on singles;: it has a catchy riff, a singalong chorus, and leaves you wishing it was just a bit longer.

But with al the positives, there is something lacking. Maybe it is the free spirit of pre-breakdown Dave, maybe it is just the change in style which is necessetated by the passage of nearly 15 years since their fresh sounding debut album. Whatever it is, it holds this effort back from being perfect. I think after listeningto the album a few times, it hints at the greatnes that was Before the Crowded Streets, and inches so close to it, flirts with it, and then ultimately climaxes just short of where it could have gone. With this effort, Dave Matthews Band has solidified their place in my collection, and are now on my concert and new album radar again. 4/5

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