It took them most of this decade, but with Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, Dave Matthews Band have finally rekindled the essence that originally intoxicated their fanbase during their 1990’s heyday. The band has never lost their touch in the live setting, but this album is full of songs that will revitalize their set lists and hang around as concert favorites for years instead of months.
More ragged than 2001’s painstakingly-polished Everyday and more cohesive than 2005’s hit-or-miss Stand Up, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (BWGK) stands as DMB’s most natural-sounding and emotionally charged record of the young millenium. Fittingly, the first and last sound listeners hear during a start-to-finish listen is the late Leroi Moore’s succinct saxophone. Both of these moments, brief as life can be, capture him and the band in the midst of spontaneous improvisations, the most private and personal of musical forms.
Moore, who was tragically killed in 2008, is eulogized by Matthews’ own album-cover artwork, but this album is far from a downer. Like the jubilant jazz-funeral artwork, BWGK pays homage to Moore with a celebration – and occasional lamentation – of life itself. BWGK is full of Matthews’ favorite subjects and frequent ruminations – religion, life, death, sex, war, sadness, fun – all of these are found among the album’s resonant lyrical content.
As varied as the subject matter are the musical styles within the album’s 13 tracks, and there’s a signature DMB style to appease every part of their fanbase. There’s maniacal, screaming Dave – the likes of which hasn’t been heard in some time – on the worrisome “Time Bomb,” sweet and playful lovin’ Dave in “Spaceman,” and hopeful Dave on “You and Me.”
Sorrow and loss don’t dominate the album, but a sense of imminent danger does. “Dive In” is a bitingly sarcastic environmental warning, and the foreboding, explosive “Squirm” reinforces the band’s continuing infatuation with Eastern tones when they want to make things extra dark. “Squirm,” a la older favorites like “What You Are,” “The Last Stop,” and “Minarets,” draws evil energy from a dense, exotic melody.
The band trumps the sharper, edgier sound of Stand Up by incorporating powerful doses of electric guitar from Tim Reynolds and Jeff Coffin’s aggressive sax work (the album also features contributions from Moore, but it is often difficult to discern who’s on sax). Carter Beauford’s busy, perfect drumming is punchier than ever, and aided by Stefan Lessard’s smooth, worldly bass playing, Beauford propels the album’s mood swings with vibrant rhythms that slowly take over the listener’s muscle movements.
Every song is worth mentioning and full of pleasure, and there’s a wonderful flow to the experience. Guest banjo player Danny Barnes adds some needed twang to “Alligator Pie,” in which Matthews combines imagery of post-Katrina New Orleans with his daughter’s plea – “Daddy, when you gonna put me in a song?” The album was recorded in New Orleans, and while NOLA influence can be found on BWGK, it’s not an overwhelming element.
Some of the album just flat out rocks like only DMB can, such as the frenzied dance tune “Shake Me Like A Monkey,” which is all blustery horns, intense rhythms, somersaulting riffs, and impassioned vocals. “Seven” combines some typical Matthews lust with a shoulder-shrugging syncopation that results in some down-and-dirty funk fun. It’s also easy to hear why, prior to his passing, Moore selected the muscular foundation of “Why I Am” as his favorite groove – there’s not another song on the album that is more unmistakably DMB.
There’s one essential component to the DMB sound that is somewhat lacking here, and that’s the violin work of Boyd Tinsley. I found him to be almost unnoticeable during my several listening sessions, save a couple of obvious solo moments. His contributions mostly serve to add a nearly imperceptible layer of depth to the band’s melodic creations.
Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is a stellar effort from a band that has quite publicly lost its way, found its way back, and taken stock of their life and gifts along the journey. By focusing on the most important things in their lives – one of which is music – DMB has created something that will restore fans faith in their abilities and appeal to those who haven’t already devoted themselves.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10