Dave Matthews Band: “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King”

big whiskey

When Dave Matthews wonders aloud if there’s “someone up there” watching down on him from the heavens, it’s just about the most cliched attempt at philosophizing I think I’ve ever heard– but I’ll be damned if it isn’t also a moment of real, honest-to-goodness soul-searching.

This is big picture stuff, and to hone in on Dave’s typically clumsy lyrics is to point out the obvious while also missing out on a really tremendous record. Whatever Matthews’ lyrics lack in precision they more than make up for in passion, something the DMB has lacked for close to a decade now but has in spades on new album Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. Yeah, the title is goofy, but the music isn’t: This is the album they had just begun recording when long-time sax master LeRoi Moore died suddenly in late 2008, and it burns with all the fire and righteous zeal of a band that’s been shaken out of their complacency by an abrupt tragedy.

Oddly enough, you wouldn’t necessarily know they’d lost Moore if you just gave the album a cursory glance. Some of his work is actually featured on the album– the sessions were already underway when he passed away– and stand-in Jeff Coffin (of the Flecktones) pays in a style that isn’t markedly different. More to the point, none of the songs are straightforward eulogies for Moore. At its most somber, Dave speaks in broader terms about fate and mortality, and also alludes to both war and Hurricane Katrina. At its most cheerful, there are some tender love songs and even one of Matthews’ typically raunchy sex songs.

The beauty lies in how Matthews ties it all together, not explicitly so much as implicitly, through a renewed sense of focus and a consistency in tone. The whole album takes on the form of a reflection on living life well even in the face of sorrow and grief– that much Matthews does make explicit on the seize-the-day anthem “Dive In”– but it’s a reflection that moves comfortably from the comical come-ons of “Shake Me Like a Monkey” to the pensive meditations of “Lying in the Hands of God,” from the tenderness and nostalgia of “Alligator Pie” to the brooding menace of “Time Bomb.” And even when Matthews, who once seemed like a perpetual frat-boy, dips into Philosophy 101 musings on fate in “Funny The Way it Is,” he’s saved by his own sincerity; within the context of the album, it sounds less like a cliche and more like real spiritual inquiry.

The band, on the other hand, brings both passion and precision– and they’ve never sounded more invigorated, more focued, more funky. This is terrific ensemble playing– even when the songs veer off into solos, the emphasis somehow remains on their full-band chemistry– and producer Rob Cavallo, who brings a dash of classic rock to everything he touches, transforms the group’s elastic, syncopated songs from jam-band indulgence into fiery and ferocious funk. On the rock numbers, Dave plays electric guitar for a change, which gives the songs some weight and anchors them to frisky, funky rock and roll; on the ballads, jazzy chord progressions and Carter Beauford’s ethnic-tinged drumming lands them almost in soft-prog territory, not dissimilar to prime Sting or Peter Gabriel. The musicians are all on fire, and their communication as a band is tops; they’ve never been recorded better, at least in a studio setting, nor have they ever been this inspired to try new things (the swampy, banjo-driven “Alligator Pie,” the minor-key madness of “Time Bomb”), to pare things down (the achingly gentle “Baby Blue,” essentially Dave solo), or simply to rock hard and fast and with ferocity (“Shake Me Like a Monkey,” their more slamming and irresistible track yet).

Thing is, though, the music and the words feed into each other; “Time Bomb,” with its paranoid sound, is ominous and a little unhinged, befitting its lyrics, which speak of desperation and madness, the singer scarred by sadness and loss but hoping to find solace in Jesus. It’s as weird and as interesting as it sounds. Everything here is connected– words and music, melodies and performances, songs of love and songs of loss– into a tapestry in which life is understood in the context of death, love and sex and music celebrated in the face of mortality, precisely for their in-the-moment-ness. And that… well, that’s not merely a matter of passion. That’s downright profound.

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