Dave Matthews Band
BigWhiskey and the GrooGrux King
3.5 out of 5 stars
The first notes you hear on Dave Matthews Band’s latest release is the unmistakable tone of late saxophonist LeRoi Moore. It couldn’t be more appropriate considering the album is titled in honor of the founding member who died last August of complications from injuries suffered in a freak ATV accident. “GrooGrux” is a nickname coined between Moore, drummer Carter Beauford and guitarist Tim Reynolds to describe the vibe of their sound when playing music together. Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (or Big Whiskey) is much more than a tribute to a fallen friend. It is the band’s best studio effort since 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, and finally gives the band some credible new material to incorporate into their high-energy live shows.
After parting ways with famed producer Steve Lilywhite, who produced the band’s best studio work (Under The Table and Dreaming, Crash and Before These Crowded Street), Dave Matthews Band has had a revolving door of producers and a rash of hit and miss albums. Their first work post-Steve Lilywhite was 2001’s Everyday, which saw the band change direction with pop influences and slick production. Even though the album was a commercial success, expanding the band’s audience, the band did experience some fan backlash as the intricate rhythms, organic acoustic sounds and unique voice of the group was generally lost. And lost in their studio efforts is where the Dave Matthews Band stayed for the better part of eight years.
2005’s Stand Up was yet another album that lacked focus and the quality songwriting Dave Matthews had become known for in the 1990s. In fact, the only albums of note during this 8-year stretch were the internet-leaked The Lillywhite Sessions, which were the unfinished tracks taken from the arduous Virginia recordings before Lillywhite was dismissed, and 2002’s Busted Stuff, which was simply the re-recorded versions of the songs Lillywhite and band had failed to finish before his dismissal. Clearly it seemed the band was cursed in the studio as everything Lillywhite was involved with was considered by many to be the band’s best material.
When work for Dave Matthews Band’s seventh studio album, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King started in November in 2007, the band took a different approach. They collectively gathered to brainstorm musical ideas and write as collective group. This was a change as Matthews had been the chief songwriter on previous efforts. He would bring songs in completed and the band would arrange and record them. However, the band new it needed a change to bring new life into their studio process as they all felt the strain of producing a solid studio album. That open floor for musical ideas shows as Matthews only penned one track, “You and Me,” without the help of the other band members on Big Whiskey.
After Moore’s death in 2008, the band made a conscious decision to include touring members Reynolds, Jeff Coffin (saxophone) and Rashawn Ross (trumpet, vocals) in studio sessions and their presence has turned the group into a full-fledged rock band. Reynolds’ electric guitar gives the band a harder edge and Coffin and Ross’ horns provide an Earth Wind and Fire-type horn section.
As recording continued in early 2009 at Piety Street Studio in New Orleans, the band gelled and it is obvious. “Shake Me Like A Monkey” is a powerhouse of sound—distorted guitars and funk horn arrangements. The album’s first single “Funny The Way It Is,” is Dave Matthews songwriting 101. The strongest part of the song is not the chorus, rather the verse with Beauford’s syncopated drum beat and Matthew’s conscious lyrics: “Funny the way it is, if you think about it / One kid walks 10 miles to school, another’s dropping out / Funny the way it is, not right or wrong / On a soldier’s last breath his baby’s being born.” “Lying In The Hands of God” might be one of Matthews best dark ballads since “Dreaming Tree.” Other album highlights include “Why I Am” and “Spaceman.”
My only complains are that the slick production by producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance) takes away the organic acoustic feel the band is best known for and the second half of the album is weaker than the first half. It seems most of the best tracks are piled on the beginning of the album. Even so, this is a great release for any Dave Matthews Band fan and should finally get that Lillywhite monkey off Dave Matthews Band’s back.