The Music of Dave Matthews
In today’s environment, there emanates a certain culture that sort of dictates the kind of lifestyle that should dominate. This culture is around everything, from the way people dress, how they talk, what they eat, what they avoid, and what they spend their money on. This culture also affects one important thing, the kind of music people hear and play. It is on this kind of effect on which music of the world revolves in. It retains a sense of mainstream issue, where only those that coincide with the wants of the popular media become famous and rich.
The greatest of all composers, then, is someone who can still remain at the top of the charts even after straying away from the so called pop culture. And Dave Matthews is a perfect example of such musician. Born of an African-American race, Dave Matthews is not only a mix in race, but also in styles and techniques in his music making.
His capabilities are also a mix and match of different things. Before being a full blown musician, he was an amateur actor, performing at several small plays at different occasions. He would then act and sing at the same time, covering a wide range of tonal chords including high falsetto rings. His experience in acting paved way for his expressive singing abilities which proved useful when he moved into music (Delancey, 2001).
Being a composer, his music covers a wide range of styles. He began singing very simple songs, as those dictated by the pop culture. Some of his songs, such as “I’ll Back You Up”, “The Song that Jane Likes” and “Recently” can be heard in regular bars and performance areas around his hometown in Charlottesville. These songs were simple enough that they immediately stuck in many people’s mind. The melody was a simple guitar riff with mellow vocals singing over them. They were not rock, nor jazz, nor alternative; many consider Dave Matthews’ first songs to be of the pop genre, something that became very famous during that time (Delancey, 2001).
This was also the time when Dave Matthews decided to form a standard and permanent band. And this was when everything started to change. One impetus of Dave Matthews success in the music industry is the brilliance of his band mates. They were composed of seasoned musicians, each specializing in different genres and styles of music. The final set-up composed of a drum set, a bass guitar player, a violin and cello player, a saxophonist, and a keyboard player. Sometimes, the band would add another guitar to back up Dave, or other horns for additional texture and depth (Delancey, 2001).
From being a simple pop solo artist, Dave Matthews turned into a freer style of expression (Whitfield, 2005). He composed songs that are very out of the ordinary, and that would sound different from the rest of the tops bands during that time. And it is the new elements present in his materials that made him famous and respected by many.
One interesting element in Dave Matthews’ songs is the use of complex and odd time signatures. A regular or common meter is something what people hear 99 percent of the time on the radio or on performances. The steady beat was there, constantly pulsing every 4 counts. Dave Matthews changed that standard and used varying time signatures, from 3 beats, to 6 beats, to even 7 beats over eighth notes. The result is a very syncopated pattern, where the listeners usually fail to tap their feet right on the start of every verse. The odd meter was, however, not so distracting at all. Dave Matthews was able to pull of a great trick here, employing very unusual time signatures without destroying the flow of his songs. This is very obvious in one song, “Crash into Me”. The song’s theme is a slow, much more like a ballad, with a little heavy feeling on some certain parts. The intro and the verse begin like a simple song, all in common time (4/4). The tapping then changes when it shifts into the chorus, where the time signature changes to something like a 5/4, that is, 5 beats instead of the usual 4. In addition to this, the cymbals accented a very different pattern than what the rest of band was doing. The disruption on the flow of the common 4 beats created a sort of tension, or better yet, a hanging feeling, which was quite weird for the first time but got better during the next choruses.
Another factor that evolved in Dave Matthews music was the incorporation of elements from different genres of song. Some pieces could start as a rock tune, with heavy hitting drums and straightforward guitar strums, and then would suddenly shift into a jazzy tune – complete with a walking bass line and the classic drum swing. For this alone, the albums of Dave Matthews can never be quantified into a single genre. He was able to mix the elements of jazz, rock, alternative, samba, bossa, and even other world music into his songs. In the song “Ants Marching”, a very complex rhythm suggests a rock song with several factors of progressiveness in its chorus. The song is pretty upbeat, and heavy with all the cymbal wash and the bass guitar doing busy chords. On the bridge, however, Dave Matthews played a guitar solo which sounded very country like. The violin player also played along, and the whole portion sounded like a fiddle solo from the countryside. It was a real transition from one style to another, yet it was so smooth that it perfectly fitted the song.
Also, there is the instrumentation itself of the songs. For an amateur musician, or even for some professionals out there, the songs of Dave Matthews are filled with complex instrumentation. This can be logically figured out, with the intense line up and the mixing of all different kinds of instruments. Even the drummer plays a large number of drums, cymbals, and different percussions that add spices and variety onto the music of Dave Matthews. The guitar parts are also played with such fluidity, that no one would think that there is only one guitar player. But the instrumentation can also be simple, and yet sound so full. Like in the song “Where Are You Going?”. This was mainly a soft and mellow tune, something that I really liked the first time I heard it. The song started with a smooth flute tune and some strings to it. The drummer then moved on making rolls on his snare drum, just like a marching band style. The complexity of the whole arrangement is great, as I can hear several tunes answering back what the other instrument did. While all of this was going on, the drummer kept a constant time while accenting different beats of the measure. But the most amazing thing of all, is that they were all synchronized with each other, and the song sounded awesome.
And of course, to top it all of, there is the vocal quality of Dave Matthews himself. His voice can reach different octaves, different ranges, and can change quality whenever he wants it. All of these add up to a total experience that only Dave Matthews and his band can create. Probably the best reason for this is his training in actor. And of course, his years as a musician playing solo before forming the band himself.
As a musician, he was self taught, while obtaining lectures from other musicians he played and performed with. He was able to collect a series of lessons on which he based the construction of his music. But some would say that he is innately musically inclined, like the entire African race who are said to be born with musical abilities. And this held true to the very most. At a young age, Dave Matthews was able to play professionally, and performed with several musicians which are considered to be top rated at that time (Martel, 2004).
Two specific persons that really helped Dave Matthews during his early years are Tim Reynolds and Dawn Thompson, of whom Dave was able to play with. These two seasoned professionals, upon seeing the talent and gift of Dave Matthews, recruited him into their respective groups and gave Dave the musical break of his life. He was then playing at several bars, being able to make people laugh during breaks, and make them clap during the performance proper (Martel, 2004).
As for influence, Dave Matthews would consider every single music he heard as an influence. Not only music, but also certain events have an effect on Dave Matthews’ music. One concrete evidence is the early death of his father, on which he started to compose sad, mellow songs such as “Carpe Diem”. Another tragedy that struck him is the death of his sister, who was murdered by her own husband. This event had a great effect on Dave Matthews that he suddenly stayed out of the spotlight for sometime. He, fortunately, was able to recover from the trauma, and created a whole album, “Under the Table Dreaming”, dedicated solely to her.
So sum it all, it was a vision for an extraordinary music that rocketed Dave Matthews and his band into popularity. It was not the culture that was present at that time, but the passion of these musicians in creating music for their own expression, and not for following the bandwagon.
Delancy, M. 2001. The Dave Matthews Band: Step into the light. CANADA :ECW Press
Martel, N. 2004. Dave Matthews Band. NEW YORK: Simon & Schuster
Whitfield, F. 2005. “Profiles of U2 and the Dave Matthews Band”. CNN.com Transcripts. Retrieved March 1, 2009 from http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0505/14/pitn.01.html