How an unassuming, but supremely talented rock star parlayed pop-music stardom in the mid-90’s into a touring empire that continues to turn out tens of thousands of fans year after year, city after city. Dave has operated beneath the radar for almost 20 years now, but don’t tell his fans that…
Last weekend, my wife and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary with our first concert since the pandemic. Dave Mathews Band, playing at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York was an ideal choice for us. It was my fifth show, her fourth. By any reasonable measure, we’re both pretty big fans. One would think we’d experienced all Dave has to offer by now, especially considering that I have 179 Dave Mathews Band songs on my iPod, but Dave isn’t your average singer, songwriter, and rock star. The man is his own music genre complete with a unique sound, song structure and style, wildly diverse fan base, and revenue model.
Incredibly, this genre has operated below the popular music radar for over 20 years, yet shows no sign of slowing down considering he’s only 54 years old and has a net worth of some $300 million. Dave Mathews was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but spent his childhood in the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa itself. The son of a physicist, he started playing guitar at age nine, but didn’t immediately have the ambition to pursue a career in music. After graduating from high school in South Africa in 1985, he fled the country to avoid conscription in the army, at first settling in New York where he worked at IBM for a short time. Fortunately for music fans, that didn’t last long. He soon relocated to Charlottesville, VA with his mother and became a part of the local music scene. Ultimately, Dave met guitar virtuoso and still lead guitarist of the band, Tim Reynolds, and began writing his own music.
The original Dave Mathews Band was formed in 1991 and signed with RCA records in 1994, but tragedy struck around the same time when his older sister, Anne was murdered by her own husband in South Africa, leaving two young children behind. Dave and his younger sister, Jane, took them in and have cared for them ever since. Shortly after Anne’s murder, Dave struck music gold with his first real album. Dedicated to her, Under the Table and Dreaming was released in 1994 and contained some of his most popular work to date including “What Would You Say,” “Satellite,” and “Ants Marching.” The album went platinum six times over, and brought the Dave Mathews Band to the forefront of popular culture for the first time. They followed the first hit album up with another success, Crash, another, Before These Crowded Streets, and even another, Everyday, all before the end of 2002.
Since then, however, he has continued to operate largely outside of popular music circles, selling albums and touring for an incredibly loyal, insanely fired up fanbase drawn from all walks of life. To say he appeals to a broad audience would be a dramatic understatement. Though predominantly white, literally everyone is there: Hippies, preppies, frat-boys, families, some with young children, couples, middle-agers like myself, young women, even teenagers. The parking lot is filled with everything from older, beaten up rides to Mercedes. Both sides of the political spectrum are represented, there was even a heated discussion over vaccine mandates right next to us during the tailgate. We saw everything from an angry hippy upset someone was standing in front of them to an older biker dude trying to sneak three 24-ounce Truly’s past security.
To say people flock in their thousands to have fun, would be another understatement. They’re there to party and they say everyone is friends at a Dave Mathews Show. The tailgate itself is straight from a football game, music, BBQ grills, games, and of course lots of beer and other substances. In this regard, you might contrast him with another successful, though more culturally dominant performer, Bruce Springsteen. There’s nothing like a Bruce Springsteen show in my opinion, a stadium show in the mid-summer being perhaps the most fun one can have, but having gone to thirty odd concerts over 20+ years, there’s definitely a segment of attendees there simply to say they saw Bruce Springsteen. Having fun and letting loose isn’t a part of it; it’s a checkbox on some bucket list that needs to be filled. Dave, however, draws out a true party crowd that hangs on his every word and most know just about every song, singing, screaming, and dancing. Screaming is the operative word at times, yelling out Daaaaaaave at the top of your lungs between songs.
With all that in mind, what accounts for Dave Mathews’ continued success and niche stardom? I don’t think it’s a unfair to say that most acts that were popular in the 90s don’t continue to sell out shows night after night at large venues, wherever they perform. Sure, groups like Pearl Jam can lumber out of retirement on occasion and mount a single successful tour largely from nostalgia purposes, but I don’t think anyone believes they would succeed endlessly on the touring scene, or that they would draw the same fans to multiple shows at the same venue. Other bands from the period, Counting Crows, Smashing Pumpkins, Blues Traveler, and Hootie and the Blowfish come to mind, have since faded away. Dave Mathews, with the exception of another favorite of mine, Phish, is different. Why is that?
First, Dave Mathews has built his music empire largely around touring, springboarding a few crossover, radio popular hits into a live performance phenomenon and juggernaut. Over a career spanning close to 30 years, he has only recorded 9 studio albums, but released a whopping 85 live ones. Moreover, unlike many live acts, Dave doesn’t follow a specific set list. In fact, he rarely, if ever, plays the same song on back to back nights. This makes for a freewheeling experience, one where the band itself doesn’t even know what’s coming next, much less the audience. Instead, they pause for a few moments between songs with the lights out before jumping into the next part of the show. Generally speaking, they alternate between the more popular and the obscure, the more rocking and the more somber, even including an eclectic combination of covers. On this tour alone, they’ve featured Prince, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, The Zombies, Neil Young, and more.
Our show featured big (for him) hits like “Too Much” and “So Much to Say,” popular with the Dave faithful tunes including “Crush,” “Squirm,” “Drive In, Drive Out,” and “Laying in the Hands of God,” along with a searing “Grey Street” and a rocking “Shake Me Like a Monkey.” There was also Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” complete with a “Stairway to Heaven” segment, plus a touch of Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” and even a little “Louie, Louie.” In short, you go into a show with no idea what you’re going to get, even if you pour over the recent setlists, you don’t know what will happen next from song to song, giving the sense that the show unfolds for you and you alone. In short, you don’t go purely for the nostalgia of seeing a few big hits, but you will be treated to a panorama of music, hard and soft, powerful and touching, old and new.
This is doubly true considering the Dave Mathews Band reputation as a legendary “jam band,” improvising versions of songs that can run up to 20 minutes long. The band itself features musicians of extraordinary talent, playing a diverse collection of instruments. There’s the traditional hard rock line up of rhythm and lead guitar, though no one would call the gifted Tim Reynolds a traditional anything, keyboard, bass and drums plus saxophone, trumpet, violin and fiddle, resulting in a carnival of available sounds and offering almost unlimited opportunities to play off one another. Dave, of course, is the star of the show and, while he’s not the most energetic performer, he’s the rare one that has total control over his voice, part actor, part singer, changing his style on a dime to make the most of the track or the moment.
The tracks themselves are of course equally important, one doesn’t build a music empire without writing quality songs. In this regard, Dave can best be seen as a fusion artist, combining traditional rock and roll, hard rock, blues, jazz, funk, country, soul, prog-rock and popular music into his own unique creation. There’s an argument to be made, true of most musicians, that his songs sound similar at times, but, equally true of most musicians at the top of their game, the sound itself is all Dave Mathews and no one sounds quite like it. There’s a combination of the energy to his vocals, the complexity of the main rhythm coupled to the frequent changes, and the interplay between the instruments that screams Dave. Frequently, he plays with the standard ballad format, taking a big intro on strings or horns, softening for the verse, and then swelling for the chorus, but he just as frequently eschews the traditional verse, chorus structure for whatever he pleases. The bedrock is always the riff, normally two or three of them, played on several different instruments at different points, sometimes changing radically from soft to hard and back again, as if the song is the proverbial river that don’t quite know where it’s flowing. The anchor is always his voice, while not the traditional Robert Plant style screamer or Freddie Mercury dynamic range, he has the ability to dig deep, pump out the notes, and alternate between soulful and powerful, all with a unique tone and timber.
It can be a lot to take in at first and somewhat polarizing, something Dave himself has noted. “Without question — and some express it with more vinegar than others — there are people who truly don’t like my band,” he said in an interview a couple of years back, adding, “I think a lot of them just go, ‘I hate the Dave Matthews band’ because they saw someone they didn’t like in one of our T-shirts.” Regardless, Dave himself remains a completely unlikely rock star, balding, not flashy in his dress, self-effacing in manner, almost shocked that he’s the center of the show and the subject of everyone’s attention. We’re all the luckier for it. It’s the rare musician still standing tall thirty years later, much less one that seems to be at the peak of his ability, putting it all out on the stage night after night. He deserves every penny he’s made and here’s hoping he keeps going for another thirty years.