By: Mike Bookey
It's cutting late into the afternoon in a town just outside of Pittsburgh and, like he's been doing for most of the summer afternoons in his adult life, Stefan Lessard is getting ready to play a show. Well, he actually calls it a "gig," rather than the massive multi-tour-bus-and-semi-truck production that is required for a performance by the Dave Matthews Band. This night at the Post Gazette Pavilion, some 23,000 fans will be adoring every note Lessard pumps out of his bass as he sways rhythmically back and forth, his instrument snug up to his chest... just like he's been doing, again, his entire adult life.
This "adult life" of Lessard's is one of the more intriguing in the annals of rock & roll. A boy, still of high school age, gets snagged up by a promising singer-songwriter to play in a band of equally promising musicians. In only a few years, that band makes it big – really big – and becomes for some concertgoers the only show they care to see for the entire summer.
But even after watching his band cultivate what has become arguably the most popular live show in the country, Lessard (now 34) on this particular summer afternoon speaks as if things are just getting started for the Dave Matthews Band. And in a way, he might be right. Only a few weeks earlier, the band released the long-awaited record, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, which happens to be the first disc the band will tour in support of without saxophonist LeRoi Moore, who died from injuries he incurred in an ATV accident last year. The disc was immediately seen by critics and anyone with a music blog as a sharp departure for the band, which it obviously is, and brought new DMB material back onto the radio waves for the first time in almost half a decade.
"We've been sort of lost in trying to find that original spark, but I can tell you, on stage it feels like we just became successful," says Lessard. "There's just sort of a giddiness I feel up on stage and I think a lot of it has to do with 'Roi."
There isn't much sadness in Lessard's voice when he talks about his fallen bandmate, which isn't to say Moore's passing wasn't tough on the band. But he talks about the completion of Big Whiskey as more of a party than a funeral – more inspiring than remorseful. Many of the horn lines on the record were played by Moore and recorded during the early phases of the album's creation, which is somewhat eerie, but also fitting for a man that was more heard (at least in the form of his horn mastery – he was never a mouthpiece for the band) than seen during his long tenure with the band. Anyone who saw a DMB show with Moore knew that he was almost invisible up there – seemingly shy in his demeanor, but an extrovert through his saxophone. While he wasn't one for the spotlight, Moore's death last summer nonetheless sent a wave of grief and shock through the DMB camp, as well as its fan base. Jeff Coffin of Flecktones fame took Moore's spot alongside touring trumpeter Rashawn Ross for live dates last summer and also contributed to Big Whiskey, but that hardly means that Moore was replaced, on the record or on stage.
"It's amazing when you think about it that this record contains LeRoi and that you hear him in the moment of these tunes, but then you hear us also on top of that dealing with the tragedy of his loss after the fact," says Lessard. "So, he really is a ghost on this record, but he's a very present ghost."
And there is no more ghostly moment on Big Whiskey than the one minute and eleven seconds that begin the album. Called "Grux" – Moore's nickname – this opening track is simply Moore's saxophone and some subtle floor tom fills from Carter Beauford. It's gorgeously haunting, as if Moore is playing in a theater, or in true DMB style, an amphitheater, and the listener is the only other one there to hear it. The song is slightly dark, but weirdly joyous at the same time. This is the first emergence of the ghost that Lessard says is present on the record, but hardly the last.
Big Whiskey was a long time coming, to say the least. The record was recorded on both coasts and a spot in between and spanned three different calendar years as sessions took place in Seattle and Virginia with the bulk of the recording laid down in New Orleans. In terms of production, it might not be a bad bet to put some cash on the assertion that this was the most ambitious (as well as divergent) recording to date by this band. And when they brought on producer Rob Cavallo, a guy more known for taking punk rock sound and making it arena-sized (as he did with Green Day) than molding the sort of complex rootsy numbers on which DMB has hung its hat for almost twenty years, they were probably feeling pretty damn ambitious.
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