In the summer of 1997, the Dave Matthews Band reigned as unlikely alt-rock superstars. The group’s major label debut, 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, elevated them from heroes of Virginia’s progressive roots scene to mainstream success, and 1996’s Crash made an even bigger splash, propelled by the ubiquitous hit single “Crash Into Me” and a resultant Grammy win. As was their style, DMB had dedicated most of the years between to touring, jamming ebulliently to crowds of adoring fans who were, as comedian and podcaster Marc Maron would eventually put it, only truly comfortable while “jigging around in an arena with other like-minded people.”
That DMB was difficult to classify hadn’t barred them from hitmaker status, but the spotlight left Matthews feeling restless. “Maybe you couldn’t call them pop and you couldn’t call them jazz and you certainly couldn’t call them rock,” producer Steve Lillywhite told Relix in 2018. “What were they?” With 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, Dave and co. asserted that whatever you thought they were, they were something different. Newly remastered and reissued on vinyl to commemorate its 25th anniversary (puzzlingly sans bonus material, given the ponderance of archival tape), the record represents DMB at its most nakedly ambitious. The core of the band’s sound remained intact: maximalist rhythms from drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard undergirding Matthews’ buoyant odes to abandon, while the melodic runs of saxophone/flutist LeRoi Moore and sawing fiddle of Boyd Tinsley offer counterpoints. These songs, however, explode the template with gothic romance, horror, and yes, a few goofy odes to bliss.
As work began on the record, DMB were tasked with contributing a recording to Wes Craven’s meta-horror sequel Scream 2. Though the band owed its stardom to peppy, worldbeat and jazz-inflected acoustic rock, one entry from Matthews’ songbook made immediate sense for inclusion: “Halloween,” an uncharacteristically aggressive number about a jilted lover that originally appeared on the group’s 1994 pre-major label EP Recently. They got to work on an update, shaping the queasy, see-sawing composition into something more sinister. Matthews’ voice usually sounded friendly and jovial. Now he was howling, dripping menace and bile, part Tom Waits with a side of Vincent Price. The band began wondering if perhaps the song was too interesting to give away, so they reversed course, submitting “Help Myself,” an old reworked tune, instead.
“Halloween” is a testament to the darkness that lingered in the corners of the breezy music of the Dave Matthews Band from the very beginning. With Crowded Streets, that darkness moved to the fore, unavoidable even among supremely horny songs like “Stay (Wasting Time),” the knotty funk of “Rapunzel,” and the sleek and devotional “Crush,” where Lessard’s Mingus-inspired bassline and blocky jazz chords impart an air of smoky sophistication. “No need to bear the weight of your worries/Let them all fall away,” Matthews sings at the start of the record; then he and his collaborators spend the next hour documenting all manner of anxiety.
Though the DMB lineup was already vast, a wide cast of guests joined to fill all available space. Alongside jam band fellow traveler Béla Fleck on banjo, Alanis Morissette on backing vocals, and the Kronos Quartet, returning contributors included Chapman Stick player Greg Howard, pianist Butch Taylor, trumpeter John D’earth, and crucially, guitarist Tim Reynolds, whose frenetic guitar work nudges toward prog. Though Reynolds was essentially the band’s lead guitarist on their first two albums, Lillywhite had largely directed him away from the electric guitar. Now, he had more creative license: electric was the default, playing in the right speaker against Matthews’ acoustic in the left.
Lillywhite may have suggested DMB as a “non-rock” act, but the album’s unlikely first single, “Don’t Drink the Water,” embraces their rock bonafides. Like Pearl Jam’s “Given to Fly,” the song is an overt homage to Led Zeppelin. With Beauford and Lessard locked into a Bonham and John Paul Jones-inspired churn, Matthews explores the subject of colonialism based on his childhood in apartheid-era Johannesburg: “What’s this you say? You feel a right to remain? Then stay and I will bury you,” Matthews sings. The song drew on his South African roots but it also addresses the forced expulsion of Indigenous people in the United States. “Your land is gone and given to me,” Matthews sings, before Morissette joins him for a wailing conclusion, their entangled voices suggesting the cries of the damned far more than friendly whoops from the crowd at Red Rocks.
Matthews makes ample space for songs that subvert the grim qualities of the epics. On “Crush,” he evokes the specter of Marvin Gaye, sounding more than a little like Sting, and backed by Beauford’s dynamic harmonies. The song’s title was inspired by an in-joke about “Crash Into Me,” but it’s also a kind of reaction to the former song, maturing from youthful voyeurism into something more gentlemanly and charming. Speaking with GQ’s Alex Pappademas, Matthews said that unlike “Crash Into Me,” “Crush” communicates his devotional intent: “[W]hen I hear it now, I don’t go, Jeez, pal. Pull your pants up.” Following a fiery solo by Tinsley, the song settles into a luxurious jam that could extend indefinitely.
Twenty five years later, Before These Crowded Streets remains DMB’s most experimental album, a crossroads in the band’s history. Their followup, 2001’s Everyday, would pull back on the eclecticism in favor of pop cohesion. Not that overt darkness and challenging structures stopped Streets from debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, displacing the Titanic soundtrack. Certainly, it represented Matthews’ desire to dispense with the perception he was a mere “chugalug mirth-meister,” as David Browne put it in his 1998 Entertainment Weekly review, but it also showcased his desire to step forward and embrace his paradoxical multitudes.
The record’s penultimate song, the tragicomic “Pig,” synthesizes Matthews’ viewpoint. As Moore and Tinsley play woozy, elegant arcs with the easy feel that characterized the band’s earliest singles, Matthews adopts a gentler perspective: We have right now, and that’s enough. Like so many of the songs on Crowded Streets, this one concerns blood, but now it represents a life force, “alive deep and sweet within.” Here, Matthews carves out a peaceful space between the impermanence of life and the certainty of death. “From the dark side we can see a glow of something bright,” he sings, suggesting an interdependence between what we love and what we fear, the space between who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be. Stumbling into unlit territory, the Dave Matthews Band found something gleaming deep in the shadows.
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