When I graduated high school in 2000, I barely knew who the Dave Matthews Band was. Sure, I must have seen their videos on TV, but I don’t know that I could have told you anything about them.
Then I went to university and everything was different. Many of the guys listened a lot to a few bands and artists: Sublime, Jack Johnson, David Gray (which, in retrospect, seems crazy) and, of course, Dave Matthews Band. Moreover, my closest friend on my floor and my neighbour were both massive fans. (The friend still is to this day.) So DMB was everywhere.
A few years earlier, I had started getting into prog rock and by the time I got to university it was a full blown obsession. (I was listening to Jethro Tull on repeat, I’m pretty sure. My neighbours must have loved me, though one of them actually did!) Moreover, my tastes were rapidly expanding: I had recently purchased Mr. Bungle’s debut album and was struggling with understanding it. A friend tried (and failed) to get me into Faith No More but also post rock and some other stuff. I discovered Jazz Fusion. I’m sure I’m missing something.
And I was already trend-averse. So everyone (well, the guys) all of a sudden loving DMB was a recipe for me to reject them. But so was discovering Weather Report and Return to Forever at around the same time I was being pressured into liking DMB. Because, if we can say two things about DMB, one of them is that they seem to love fusion. (The other thing is that they like songs more than their contemporaries in the jam band scene, hence their extreme popularity.)
All of this is to say that I’ve been (irrationally) skeptical of DMB for much of my life, much more so than bands like Phish.
And I don’t know that they deserve that skepticism. Yes, it’s easy to make fun of Matthews’ voice, but he’s hardly the only singer to have an affected delivery. And when things work well, they really work quite well. Sure, I know the reference points but I don’t know how many other people had tried to combine this kind of confessional songwriting with jazz fusion before. (Somebody must have, right? But I don’t know.)
Matthews’ is a good enough musician to pull it off and he has surrounded himself with excellent musicians. (Just don’t talk to the DMB superfans about them, because they may tell you they’re not just great musicians, but they are all GOATs. And that’s certainly one reason why it’s easy to hate them. Don’t blame the band for their fans, though, it’s not their fault.) I like good musicianship and if I can get over the jazz fusion gloss of some this, I hear good musicianship.
And Matthews is a decent songwriter, even if those songs are sometimes at the mercy of the jamming. (Not always, though!) It’s easy to dismiss his delivery but I do wonder if he would be more fondly thought of as a songwriter by non-fans if he just didn’t sound so damn affected.
Anyway, I’ve come around. (I already had when I listened to Before These Crowded Streets.) I’m not about to listen to them without reason, but I no longer think they’re one of the most overrated bands of their era. And that’s a really big change for me.