Music: Let the music speak for itself

They're the hottest act in the United States, with fans as obsessively loyal as the Dead Heads - but groovers and shakers don't want to know about the Dave Matthews Band.

DRIVING UP to Red Rocks near Denver, Colorado, one gets a thrilling sense of the grandiose. Just a few miles from the foothills of The Rockies, this natural amphitheatre is flanked on three sides by towering slabs of rock whose hue is indeed rusted-orange. On the fourth side, its tiered seating stretches to the nook of a cloudless sky. It's easy to imagine The Flintstones arriving for a drive-in movie, but tonight the perfect acoustics of this Jurassic-like venue will service The Dave Matthews Band.

There's no escaping the seeming paradox which underpins the Dave Matthews Band's phenomenal success. Celebrity fans include Chelsea Clinton and George "ER" Clooney, and their last two albums, Crash and Under the Table and Dreaming have sold well over 11 million copies. "Big deal," say an indifferent popular music press. It's a state of affairs which Matthews, a former bartender from Charlottesville, Virginia, has a few views on: "Basically, I don't think the press likes to catch up," he says. "We were doing really well without them, and they were thinking `we didn't write about them, we didn't talk about them'. I don't think they like our music's celebratory vibe much, either", he adds. "I'm not skinny or sad enough for them. I'm a cheery bastard."

While such ambivalence towards the media might seem like pretence, Matthews' rhetoric is not empty. He and his band have always done things their own way, building a grass-roots following via that most primitive, yet potent communication system, word of mouth. With many fans following the band from gig to gig, and trading live bootlegs with the band's blessing, comparisons with The Grateful Dead have been rife. And while the Matthews Band's jazz, world, and folk music influences make them a more complex musical proposition than The Dead ever were, even Coran Capshaw, the band's manager and a veteran of around 400 shows, recognises similarities such as a simple love of playing, a fanatically committed fan-base, and a fierce sense of autonomy.

With the band now signed to RCA records, it would be naive to portray their business dealings as some kind of glorified cottage industry. None the less, it's Matthews view that "with Coran at the helm, we're just going forward like a speedboat, and RCA are like the water-skier behind us. If we take a sharp turn we can still fool 'em now and then", he concludes. It's an observation, though, not a show of malice.

In conversation, Matthews is often apologetic for what he perceives as a lack of articulacy. You have to probe a bit to get him to talk about his live duet with Mick Jagger on Wild Horses, or about Chelsea Clinton sneaking the band on to the bill at her dad's inaugural ball ("Breakfast with Aretha Franklin - what the hell were we doing there?") There is a real reluctance to name-drop.

Matthews's complicated background offers further clues to his psyche. He was born in South Africa, and later flitted between there and the US between 1985-1990. While his father - an eminent physicist - was studying at Cambridge, he also spent a formative year in England. He remembers hearing Don McLean's "Vincent" and lots of Gary Glitter on the radio, and seems a little shocked when I tell him of recent allegations about The Leader.

The Dave Matthews Band's latest album, Before These Crowded Streets, is undoubtedly their strongest yet, the song-writing finally as focused as the musicianship. As befits a man whose speaking voice is a composite of South African, American and English accents, Matthews' vocals on the record have a chameleon-like quality. On "Crush" he's a dead-ringer for Sting. On "Halloween" he has something of Louis Armstrong. On "Stone" there's even a hint of Cat Stevens.

With saxophonist Leroi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley tearing up the solo turf in fine style, the virtuoso cast hardly needs augmenting, but banjo legend Bela Fleck adds bluegrass inflections on "Don't Drink the Water", while The Kronos Quartet's classical kudos is employed on "Halloween" and "Stone". The most intriguing collaboration, though, is with Alanis Morissette.

"We actually met at Neil Young's Bridge School benefit," Matthews explains. "And we got on, so we exchanged numbers. For a while we just played answer- phone tag, then eventually she visited us in San Francisco. When she came to see us recording in New York, she said she really liked "Don't Drink the Water", and our engineer thought it would be rude to have her come all that way and not sing a verse. I think she did a great job."

It's at this point that Matthews suddenly leans forward, remembering something. "What day is it today?" he quizzes. "I think it's her birthday soon." I tell him the day and the month. "I'll send her a surprise," he smiles. "A stuffed dog. A hung animal. My ear."

Seems Don McLean's "Vincent"3 was a bigger influence than Matthews acknowledges.

l `Before These Crowded Streets' is out 22 June on RCA records. The Dave Matthews Band play London, Shepherd's Bush Empire, 23 June.

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