Not a Breakup, Just a Break

Dave Matthews tunes up for Blossom, then plans to tune out for a while

Under normal conditions, the Dave Matthews Band's show at Blossom this weekend would be just another annual appearance by the unspeakably popular jam band, which packs the place whether or not it's got a new album. Frat boys would get wasted and do their approximation of the hippie twirl during another epic three-hour set, and all would be fine and well.

But Matthews recently dropped a bombshell that casts the show in a different light: The band is about to take a break, the first in its 20-year existence.

"Taking a year to sort of recharge my creative juices and sort of not have a safety net of touring with the band, just to see what my head comes up with, was my idea," says Matthews. "And I thought that there's no time like now, and in a way it's maybe counterintuitive. I think a lot of bands certainly just take a year off and don't even mention it. For us it's a big deal because the only thing that's been consistent is that we've been playing. Good or bad, we're coming to a town near you."

While the band's break isn't being called a breakup, such rumors have dogged the Charlottesville group throughout its career, in part because its frontman is often engaged in outside projects. He frequently plays and records with longtime friend Tim Reynolds and seems to have aspirations of pursuing a solo career — particularly since issuing his solo debut, Some Devil, back in 2003.

Internal feuds aren't foreign to them either. When the band started recording a new album in 2000 with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite, those sessions were scrapped after a record label rep reportedly said they weren't up to snuff. Matthews then teamed up with schlock producer Glenn Ballard (Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul, Alanis Morissette) to produce 2001's Everyday. Because the band wasn't involved in the songwriting process, rumors of internal tensions circulated.

After the initial Lillywhite sessions were leaked online — and got a better response than Everyday — Matthews went back to the material and reworked it for 2002's Busted Stuff. Those subsequent sessions with producer Stephen Harris reportedly went much better, and Busted Stuff went on to become another Dave Matthews platinum album, even though many devout fans didn't care for it.

Despite the turmoil, everything seemed to be going smoothly until it came time to record last year's Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. Matthews admits the band almost splintered while making the album, its first studio effort after a four-year lull. He recalls a confrontation between him, drummer Carter Beauford, and saxman LeRoi Moore.

"I think the small things started to drive us crazy about each other," he admits. "I think we've been together so long, and we did have some enduring respect for each other and admiration for each other, that when we finally sort of let go of our frustration, it was this great relief."

Indeed. Big Whiskey, which was recorded in New Orleans, might be the band's best album yet. Its fusion of funk, rock, and jazz has an urgency to it that's often been missing. Moore's death in August 2008 — from injuries sustained during an ATV wreck — helped reunite the fractured group. Though he died before the album was finished, Moore co-wrote many of the songs and plays on much of it.

"His death brought us even closer together — or at least inspired us to move forward honoring him as a unit, rather than running away from his death and each other," says Matthews. "It was that feeling that gave us the creativity and strength to make Big Whiskey, which I feel good about. I think it's a testament to that healthy response from a very difficult situation."

That said, Matthews says he needs some time off, even as he admits he and his bandmates are getting along better than ever before — and even as the current tour, which unfolds over 50 dates (including the closing-night slot at the recent Bonnaroo festival), is bringing in enough cash to rank it as one of the year's most lucrative.

"I think if I took a break three years ago, it wouldn't have been a break," says Matthews, who has three kids. "And I have every intention of coming back to these same people. My plan is to come back to these same people and reconvene, just having taken a little time to stare at the stars."  

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