Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Before These Crowded Streets’ Turns Twenty

On it’s 20th anniversary, looking back at Dave Matthews Band third album ‘Before These Crowded Streets’

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Allow me to be wistful for a second. Allow me to sit back in a rocking chair and while staring off longingly at the clear blue sky and the setting sun of spring, reflect on the both unbelievable, yet sadly believable fact that it has been twenty years since Dave Matthews Band released Before These Crowded Streets. Twenty years. I get it, but I don’t. I accept it, but I don’t. It both feels as if the album has been out longer than that and also that it does in no way feel that two decades have passed since it’s release.

On a related note, getting older is the effin’ worse mainly because stuff like this happens.

But yes, twenty years ago, on April 28, 1998, Dave Matthews Band released their third studio album. It came almost two years to the day after Crash and four years after the band’s breakthrough album, Under the Table and Dreaming, introduced the majority of the country to the band. Before that there were a couple releases and a growing legend of live shows up and down the east coast. They were a myth believed and championed by those that had bore witness to their exploits and a mere ghost story to those that hadn’t.

This band from Virginia legitimately sounded like nothing else, something that is as much of a true statement now as it was then. Their sound was punctuated and highlighted by an endless duel between LeRoi Moore’s sax and Boyd Tinsley’s adrenaline-soaked violin and anchored by Carter Beauford on drums and Stefan Lessard on bass. And then above it all was Matthews himself, an underrated guitar player, unfortunate purveyor of manic skating and straight up wild vocalist; a carnival barker overseeing a traveling circus of energetic and melodic roots rock with it’s international vibes and soaring choruses.

They were aliens.

Related image

Dave Matthews Band, around the release of ‘Remember Two Things’

In 1994, the charts were heavy with songs by Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey. Rock music was dominated by the last throes of Nirvana and the introduction of Green Day and the Offspring. The Cranberries had hit it big with “Zombie” and Live was out there putting York, Pennsylvania on the map. Guitars were soft and then loud, harmonies were plentiful and rock music was caught between the idea of real, genuine angst and angst for the sake of flannel. There was a corner open for someone to present something new and DMB made that corner their home. It helped that the corner was in close proximity to the neo-Hippie movement that was also simmering just left of the mainstream featuring bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors. If the 90’s were ushered in amidst a dark cloud of gloom, they would gradually find the sunny patch of the field and when that happened, Matthews and company were uniquely suited to provide the soundtrack.

That was in 1994 though. Four years later much was expected of a third release from Dave Matthews Band. The previous two albums had both been certified platinum multiple times and they were now one of the biggest acts in music. Crash had escaped the sophomore slump, something few bands are able to do, but kids, don’t sleep on the challenges of a third album. The third album is the Thursday of days of the week, sneaky tough despite being over-shadowed by what is most commonly considered the worst days, Monday and Wednesday. For a successful band, by the time the third album rolls around the audience and crowds are there, but so are the expectations. And those expectations are dicey buggers, asking for you to both continue to grow, but not grow so much that you become something other than the band people had come to know and love.

This is the position Dave Matthews Band found themselves in when it came to Before These Crowded Streets. In addition to battling expectations and fending off any kind of backlash, the band also longed to capture at least a semblance of their energetic live shows in the recording studio, something all great live bands try to do (and usually fail at.) Crash is a good album, but compared to what people had started to experience at their shows, it did feel as if the band was slightly held back and confined by the studio experience. And while the band would never truly bring their live act out on wax, they got pretty damn close with Before These Crowded Streets.

The album simmers and cooks and has a bounce to it. It feels alive, whereas Crash never truly did. The album also has an atmosphere to it, it has an over-arching vibe that kicks into gear right from the jump with the :41 second intro track “Pantala Naga Pampa,” a track that is not just welcoming in theory, but in verse.

“Come and relax now/put your troubles down/no need to bear the weight of your worries/let them all fall away.”

It’s a mission statement and a call to arms followed by the band, especially in the track that follows, “Rapunzel.” So many of the tracks on the album have moments of joyous explosion to them, whether it’s the bridge of “Rapunzel,” the opening of “The Last Stop” or the chorus of the album’s lead single, “Don’t Drink the Water.” “Don’t Drink the Water” has a foreboding undertone to it and has a drive to it that none of the other songs have. It’s plodding, but in a good way. It also features Alanis Morissette on it, something that was kind of weird then and is still weird today.

The album, which is a mountain range of musical peaks and valleys, has two definitive high points. The first is track five, “Stay (Wasting Time.)” In context, the song flows perfectly with the album and acts as a bridge between the manic energy of the opening tracks and the more somber and expansive back half of the album. But it was as a single that the song made it’s money (literally) and is probably what saved the album commercially. It’s also become a top 5 DMB track, one of their legacy cuts, and something that will be played at their shows for the foreseeable future.

The second high point was “Crush,” a song that found it’s way onto thousands and thousands of mixtapes and echoed throughout college and university dorms everywhere. I hear it now and am immediately transported back to Gamble 1 and the song blasting from Porter and Jed’s room as Porter played out the remaining days of the fall semester with fruit punch and vodka. Dudes liked it, gals liked it, your parents liked it but may have found it too long. It’s a tick over eight minutes, but the band never sits back once during those eight minutes. It moves constantly, from one section to the next.

Before These Crowded Streets was the Dave Matthews Band’s last truly successful album, especially from a commercial standpoint. It was their first album to debut at number 1 and was certified platinum three times, which is impressive, but down from the numbers Crash hit. Their followup album, Everyday, has similar stats as Before These Crowded Streets, but tailed off quicker, and also was a significantly different album. It was the band’s first with a different producer and where Before These Crowded Streets found the band coming close to cracking the code of bringing a live sound out in the studio, Everyday saw them go in the total opposite direction. The songs were tight and methodical. None of them were longer than four and a half minutes. It was jarring and hinted at an uncertain future for the band. While I don’t think it was the sole reason for the band’s commercial decline that would follow, I do think it played a small part. Fandom is partially built on trust and once that trust is tested, it can be hard to go back. For the first time, Dave Matthews Band poked a hole in the trust they had built up between themselves and their fans.

Even though the band has a new album slated for release this summer and have once again hit the road for a summer swing of sheds and grassy knolls across America, it seems as if the end is now much closer to the beginning for them. Moore passed away in 2008 and Tinsely announced earlier this year that he was taking a break from the band, leaving only three of the original members still there. Much as no one would really want to admit it, they’ve become a nostalgia act and with that, a band where milestones and significant anniversaries like the twenty year anniversary of one of their best albums is cause for both celebration and reflection. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the circle of life for bands, especially those who are somehow still active twenty years after a notable release.

Image result for dave matthews band before these crowded streets

Twenty years.

It has somehow been twenty years since Before These Crowded Streets was released. Twenty years since we were all justifiably puzzled by Morisette’s involvement, twenty years since “Stay (Wasting Time)” became a summer BBQ staple and twenty years since “Crush” was a go to addition to any mixtape you were making for someone special or for just another long drive from Baltimore to Maine. Twenty years to fall victim to the passage of time and the cruel indulgences of recency bias and shifting tastes and opinions. Twenty years to spend sporadically being drawn back to the album and willfully being cast down a rabbit hole of memories and historical associations like Porter and his fruit punch/vodka combination and good ol’ Willy Brazil yelling out in disgust at the sight of the Lovely Ladies at a show in Hartford.

 

Twenty years gone by. It seems about right and about wrong at the same exact time.

“Come and relax now/put your troubles down/no need to bear the weight of your worries/let them all fall away.”

There was a time when there was no better soundtrack to do exactly that to than Dave Matthews Back and the songs off of Before These Crowded Streets was a big reason why. Those times may have passed for you, but the music hasn’t. Sometimes it just takes an anniversary to be reminded of that.

 

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