Back in 2001, Dave Matthews jettisoned longtime producer Steve Lillywhite, and co-wrote a bunch of songs with producer/songwriter Glen Ballard. The resulting album, Everyday, felt like Dave Matthews Band in name only; band members were brought in to play songs already written without them, and the airtight arrangements and slick, hyper-compressed pop/rock production left no room for the looser, earthy chemistry of their first three albums. Though remaining one of the finest (and top-drawing) live bands around, DMB have since been unable to turn out an album anywhere near as engaging as their first three.
Until now. Bringing Green Day/Goo Goo Dolls producer Rob Cavallo on board had me expecting Everyday Part II. Instead, Big Whiskey & The GrooGrux King sounds like a band reunited and re-energized, if not exactly under the best circumstances: founding member and saxophone player LeRoi Moore passed away last summer, early on in the sessions for the album. Carefully preserving the parts Moore had already contributed and finding the inspiration to soldier on, Matthews and the band have crafted an album more vibrant and lively than anything they've done in the past decade. Moore's presence looms large over the album (he's the GrooGrux King of the title), and the bulk of the lyrics, when not alluding to him, contemplate life, death, and love. Matthews still enjoys singing about getting down and dirty with his woman, but even his sexual propositions are part of a bigger picture this time - it's all about what makes life grand. The spirited vibe here is not just informed by Moore's passing; largely recorded in New Orleans, the rich essence of a city on the rebound has no doubt seeped into the music as well. As producer, Cavallo gives the band a big, clean, muscular sound (also courtesy of frequent collaborator Tim Reynolds, who provides electric guitar throughout) but never lets things sound too glossy or overworked. As a band, they've never rocked harder. And it's a band record through and through, with most of the songs collectively written and built from the ground up.
In the wake of tragedy, Dave Matthews Band have responded with their first truly vital effort of the new millennium.