Music News

Happy Birthday, Dave Matthews!

Despite his penchant for easy, engaging acoustic melodies and a cheery blend of pop, folk, soul and a jam band aesthetic, things haven't always been so sublime for Dave Matthews, His albums have sold millions of copies and made him a populist hero of sorts, but his personal life has also been shattered by a series of tragedies and controversies that have made things rather contentious at times. 

Matthews was born in South Africa on January 9, 1967, at the height of the apartheid era, a turbulent time that left its mark on his psyche. In light of that fact, the integration of his namesake band made a significant social statement.

Nevertheless, the murder of his sister in early 1994 left a lasting

impression on his musical themes, a political edge which lingers to this

day. During the 2000 recording of the Dave Matthews Band's fourth

studio album, his uncle died from alcoholism, resulting in a series of

dark, depressive songs that so irked his record label, its executives

had to plead with him to return to the lighter fare of his earlier

outings. Likewise the sudden death of saxophonist and DMB co-founder

LeRoi Moore due to a freak accident on August 19, 2008 also hit him

hard, bringing that sense of loss full circle.

It's a credit to Matthews' ability to persevere that he's managed to champion on, expressing himself with a distinctive artistic sensibility. Before he became a musician, he was an amateur actor, appearing in several productions in his adopted hometown of Charlottesville Virginia in the early 1990s. He performed onstage as late as 2005 when he took the role Otis in Because of Winn Dixie, and made a cameo appearance in the film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, portraying a homosexual salesman. He followed that up in 2008 when he appeared in another Adam Sandler movie, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, playing the role of a racist redneck character named James. Last year alone, he was in three movies -- The Other Side with Giovanni Ribisi and Jason Lee, In The Woods, starring Debra Winger and Terrence Howard, and the Adam Sandler comedy Just Go With It. In addition to his film credits, TV watchers may recall his role as a piano playing musical savant who had half his brain removed in an episode of "House" and his unlikely portrayal of Ozzy Osbourne in an episode of "Saturday Night Live," which ironically found cast member Bill Hader playing him in hte same skit. 

Controversy continues to dog him. In 2000, Reuters reported that a cancer hoax chain letter was being circulated online that promised that anyone who forwarded it would be rewarded with the disclosure of Matthews's AOL screen name. In August 2004, Matthews and his band found themselves at the center of a most unfortunate incident when about 800 pounds of liquid human waste was dumped from their tour bus through the grate in the Kinzie Street Bridge in Chicago onto passengers aboard a sightseeing boat on the Chicago River below. The bus driver, Stefan Wohl, pled guilty, and the band subsequently donated $50,000 to the Friends of the Chicago River and $50,000 to the Chicago Park District. The following April, the band paid $200,000 to settle the resulting civil suit. A messy case indeed. 

Despite musical themes that bow to social and activist concerns, Matthews' politics turned partisan relatively recently. His 2000 internet video urged his fans to vote without urging any particular presidential choice. In 2004, he came out publicly for John Kerry while participating in the "Vote for Change" tour. During the 2008 election, he gave his support to Barack Obama and performed at the "Change Rocks" concert at Indiana University and later he played a semi-solo show for "Rock for Change." Other notable benefits have included a concert for t Seeds of Compassion initiative in support of the Dalai Lama and the Annual Kokua Festival at the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu, Hawaii to benefit Hawaii's educational system. Likewise, on September 6, 2007, DMB performed a free concert for the Virginia Tech student body and faculty. The show was entitled "A Concert for Virginia Tech" and was done in memory of the shootings that took place on April 16, 2007.

Notably, Matthews is also an outspoken advocate in favor of environmental initiatives, such as biofuel availability and the fight against global climate change. 

Clearly, Matthews is a good guy, but as in the case of Presidnet Obama, some questioned Matthews' citizenship, given that he was born abroad, but he avowed the fact that he is in fact a naturalized citizen. Still, the legacy of racism that ruined South Africa's reputation hasn't been lost on Matthews. An ardent crusader against inequality, he attributes much of the criticism leveled at Obama on the prejudice and bigotry aimed at an African American president. 

Still, the area where Matthews raised the most ire may be his battle against bootleggers. Early on, the band gave its blessing to audience members who wanted to tape their show and even allowed tapers to plug into their soundboard. But when bootlegs of their concerts begin circulating in droves, Matthews and company began working with the federal government to clamp down on the for-profit bootleg industry, resulting in large-scale arrests of those responsible not only for those illegally manufacturing the recordings, but also the mom and pop store owners who sold them. 

The band eventually released its own live albums to counter the demand the bootleggers created, but one has to wonder how popular the DMB actually is on Record Store Day.

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Lee Zimmerman