Dave Matthews Band: Away From The World

The huge band who baffle Europeans finally start making sense.

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They’ve only ever won one Grammy. Funny, that. You sort of assume Dave Matthews Band win 17 Grammys every year. It’s a small anomaly in their two-decade domination of the American market, though with ‘only’ 37 million albums sold (that’s around the same as Led Zeppelin IV, and puts them outside the all-time top 40 acts), they’re perhaps not quite as all-conquering as we tend to perceive.

Where they consistently kick everyone else’s ass is on the live circuit, with their now-traditional summer tours a States-wide institution. They’ve sold more tickets than anyone worldwide over the last decade, and aren’t flagging. This is their sixth successive album to enter the US charts at No.1 (a record in itself), so while they may not be up there with Jacko or AC/DC they can still shift a CD or two.

What is it that makes Dave’s crew so popular? Judging by a cynical listen to this, the answer is: sounding a bit like Sting. Listen again, though, and shrewd diversity and depths come into play, without ever frightening the horses, or people who buy two albums a year in WalMart. It’s a set of nimble folk and soft-rock ideas, with a perfectly modern polish.

Steve Lillywhite, who produced their first three albums, has returned to the fold, and is smart enough to let the violinist and trumpet/sax players have their flourishes without ever upsetting the feel of a band being down-home and unpretentious. It’s like Counting Crows with their claws trimmed, a melodic Bruce, Little Feat in slippers. Another listen, and it wins you over.

Dave – he’s definitely ‘Dave’, not ‘Matthews’ as he has no image or side, and the great US public feel like he’s a trusted philanthropic cousin – sings relatively intense, intimate things about relationships. The Beatles-esque songcraft’s pretty varied under that calm veneer too, with funky A.W.B. breaks and some concealed sharp edges. The Riff merits its title, while hit single Mercy has a tender John Martyn soul and If Only is just lovely.

There’s also a bonus CD of live recordings from Europe which may not be Metallica, but do make other would-be organic, earthy bands – like, say, Mumford & Sons – sound rather mimsy (okay, not difficult). Fans will already know that this is a strong, alert Dave album, as Dave albums go. The rest of us – non-Americans – might just start getting it. It only took 20 years.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.