Big Whiskey And The Groo Grux King

Dave Matthews Band

RCA, 2009

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Redemption is a beautiful thing.

For several years (and albums) leading up to 2005’s overproduced, passionless Stand Up, the Dave Matthews Band’s studio albums had become steadily more repetitive, uninspired, and stunted, in the sense that they largely failed to capitalize on what was special about the quintet in the first place – the dense, innovative textural capabilities of a core lineup of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, violin and sax. 

For the DMB to make meaningful music again, something had to change.  But change, as the evening news reminds us every day, is hard, and sometimes requires a significant shock to the system.  Sadly, the shock that occurred in the midst of the strung-out, between-tour sessions that eventually resulted in Big Whiskey And The Groo Grux King was the death of DMB founding member and saxophonist LeRoi Moore, a huge talent, a frequent arranger of DMB tunes, and in many ways the emotional center of the band’s musical personality.

In the wake of that loss, it was hard to have high expectations for Big Whiskey, and easy to figure the DMB might only exist going forward as a greatest hits band, a touring machine that, with Moore gone, would more than likely never again make a studio album that mattered.

It would be easy to assume that would be the case – and wrong.  The Dave Matthews Band have stitched up their grief -- and the remnants of the sessions that had been completed prior to Moore’s untimely passing in August 2008 -- and crafted their best album in a decade and a half.

“Grux” is the perfect opener, a moody studio snippet featuring Moore playing a repeating figure over drummer Carter Beauford’s skittering, fanciful percussion work.  It’s a superb mood-setter, not to mention the topic sentence for this album; Moore is the title’s Groo Grux King, and this album is one part a celebration of his life, and one part a rededication of the band.  “Grux” reminds of you not just of what was lost, but of the promise of this band – their gift for creating a mood with just a few bars of music, the sensuality of Moore’s playing and the way it shaped the warmth of the group’s sound at its best. 

And then “Grux” drops right into “Shake Me Like A Monkey,” simply the band’s best single in years.  It hasn’t been a huge hit on radio but it’s no fault of the song’s.  It has great dynamics, dense textures, strong horn presence, stuttering, complex time signatures – everything that made the group’s first two albums so special.  Matthews’ lyrics are still the band’s weakest link – he continues to recycle themes and phrases over and over -- but with the music back where it should be, full of texture and complexity and intensity, the lyrics don’t matter as much.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Funny The Way It Is” cements the impression that this is the band’s best work in years, a searching tune with strong changes, great accents by violinst Boyd Tinsley and  an MVP performance by serial DMB guest guitarist Tim Reynolds, whose wonderfully tight, spiraling, painterly solos decorate song after song here.  Moments like the middle section of gently melodic “Lying In The Hands Of God” similarly hark back to classic DMB; Matthews is playing blurry little acoustic riffs, Moore is embellishing lines and phrases with little trills, the vocals are lush and breathy, and the lyrics are vague but evocative in an impressionistic way. 

Coming to bat with the bases thus loaded in front of it, “Why I Am” hits a grand slam; it’s simply huge, a fat, driving, upbeat number in the tradition of “Ants Marching” or “Rapunzel.”  The basic riff is driven by Stefan Lessard’s bass, doubled by Reynolds’ guitar and then Tinsley’s violin, with Beauford’s stuttering beat pushing them all forward, and the way the chorus hesitates in between “why” and “I am” is pure genius. The celebratory tone – a key line goes “Still here dancing with the Groo Grux King” -- is juxtaposed with a face-splashing dose of reality, as Matthews sings “And when my story ends, it’s going to end with him / Heaven or hell, I’m going there with the Groo Grux King.”

Beyond that powerhouse of a first half lies a solid if less spectacular second one.  Matthews’ songs still tend to be about the same things – sex, death, seizing the moment, pleading for release, and occasionally, musing on the meaning of life itself in our messed-up world.  “Dive In” contemplates the latter, while “Spaceman” offers a surrealistic love song with banjo accents.  Then “Squirm” invites you to do just that, as the infamous “dark and creepy Dave” reappears to make a plea for primal release over eerie, Eastern-modality guitar lines from Reynolds, followed by “Alligator Pie,” a churning, impressionistic tribute to post-Katrina New Orleans.

The DMB’s roots as a funk-happy jam band come to the fore in “Seven,” a typically sensual plea from Mr. Matthews that’s livened up by another stellar turn by Reynolds.  “Time Bomb” finds Matthews returning to another of his favorite topics, the end of the world, and delivering one of his more entertaining takes on the subject.  The track starts out coiled and intense, starts a steady build around 1:45, and positively explodes at 2:40, the entire group barreling into a heavy jam with lots of Reynolds and keyboards and a thrashy beat and Matthews bellowing over the top.

“Baby Blue” follows, a pace-changing little acoustic love song that has nothing to with the DMB, but functions well as an interlude.  Closer “You & Me” is another love song, but with a fuller sound, and a touch of funk in the intertwining of Reynolds’ and Matthews’ guitar lines on the very catchy chorus, which reminds of “Everyday.”

Unlike recent producers employed by the band, Rob Cavallo (Green Day) is happy to let them be themselves, delivering crisp sonics without trying to mainstream the dense, complex flow of the band’s natural approach.  The end result is an overdue but wholly welcome return to form for the Dave Matthews Band.  Where they go from here as a studio band is anybody’s guess, but with Big Whiskey And The Groo Grux King, they prove the essential spark is still there.

Rating: B+

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