Before I get too distracted by how amazing this album is, I have a confession to make. Though I've heard songs from the Dave Matthews Band over the years on the radio and I've caught Matthews himself while acting on television shows like House, I've never been a huge fan. The music was good, but I'd heard so much of it on the radio that I never felt compelled to buy an album — until now.
Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King serves as a reminder that through tragedy comes growth. And with growth you never quite know where it will take you. For DMB, the departure of keyboardist Butch Taylor and the wake of LeRoi Moore's ATV accident and his death a month later would serve as both a wake-up call and a seemingly cathartic event for many of the songs on this album. Though I too mourned the loss of LeRoi as a young musician whose life was tragically cut short, I can't help but think that Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is better for it.
Though DMB has focused on philosophical and social issues in the lyrics of past albums, the lyrics of Big Whiskey are amazingly poetic and deep. "Funny the Way It Is," the album's first single, makes it impossible to miss its comparisons between different people in different situations — "A soldier's last breath / His baby's being born / Funny the way it is / Not right or wrong / Somebody's broken heart / Becomes your favorite song." They're trying to get people to see beyond their lives into the lives of others, which I think stems from them having lost their own friend. I know from past experience that the death of a friend is life-altering in ways we sometimes don't perceive for years. And in some ways, I'm sure writing and performing these songs help band members accept the change and move on.
In addition, as a sax player I am all too aware of the difference between an okay, good, and an amazing saxman. LeRoi was great on all of the previous DMB albums and perhaps that made Jeff Coffin — who stepped in to fill the huge hole LeRoi left behind — bring his A-game to the table. Coffin, of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones fame, also has had one heck of a prestigious career, playing with the Flecktones since 1997, recording several independent albums, and winning a Grammy. So to have someone with his talent step in to help out the DMB on tour and on Big Whiskey was huge.
And then there's the amazing music all throughout the album. The music just grooves along, sometimes hiding the deeper meaning of the lyrics along the way. I think that's part of the attraction here for me. Each song has multiple layers of meaning. Enjoy it for the music. Enjoy it for the words. And then enjoy it for the thought it provokes along the journey. For me the combination of deep lyrics and amazing music blend to make this one of the most intriguing albums of the year so far.
With songs like "Lying in the Hands of God" telling someone to "Save your sermons for someone that's afraid to love / If you knew what I feel then you couldn't be so sure / I'll be right here lying in the hands of God." The person's world is upside down — "Now the floor is the ceiling" — and he wonders about this person, perhaps a priest, lecturing him on how to feel.
And in "Dive In" the opening lines describe something we've all likely struggled with at one time or another: "I saw a man on the side of the road / With a sign that read 'Will work for food' / I tried to look away 'til the light turned green." But the song then goes further to show how the man on the side of the road is just a symptom of deeper issues in the world and questions if things are truly getting better: "Though we would like to believe that we are / We are not in control / Though we would love to believe."
Beyond the social depth of the album, DMB also created songs of hope and love. "Spaceman" is a man describing his love for his girl and the hope he keeps when things get rough: "Probably get it wrong much as I get it right / But I got it right woman / When I caught your eye / What I remember most / About that night is / I love the way you move baby." This one, too, goes on to share that no matter what, we have to keep earning a living and we may not always love ourselves, but he won't stop loving her.
"Alligator Pie" caught me by surprise, though. When I first heard it, I couldn't tell what it was about, but I heard the line "Stella said Daddy when you gonna / Put me in a song" and thought of my own children, wondering when they might be mentioned in something I write. Then I went back and read the lyrics and the song may actually be about hurricane Katrina and the images of those trapped by the storm in or on their homes. "Sittin' on a roof eatin' alligator pie / First day the water rise / Second day the sun is high / Third day Stella cries / Cause night time's dark as a dead man's eyes." Haunting lyrics. And to keep her mind off, Stella wants to know when she'll be in one of her Daddy's songs. All along the song is driven by some backwoods, banjo-picking and a beat that just keeps driving through. Amazing.
If you're a fan of DMB, you can't pass up Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. If you're not a fan, you shouldn't pass up a chance to at least take a listen. This is DMB at their best, celebrating the life of their friend and bandmate LeRoi Moore (whose nickname was "GrooGrux") and so much more. Be sure to find it at your favorite local music store or online.