Mr. Modesty Dave Matthews doesn't act much like the big star he is -- he just keeps unplugging away as his following grows.

August 19, 1998|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

In an article in Wednesday's Today section, two members of the Dave Matthews Band were misidentified. Boyd Tinsley is the violinist, and Leroi Moore plays saxophone.

The Sun regrets the error.

Dave Matthews is in a confessional mood.

He's not entirely sure why. "I don't know why I'm confessing all of this," he says, over the phone from his Nashville hotel room. "You're not my analyst."

Still, he feels the need to unburden himself about the indulgences of the day before. "I spent the day off yesterday just in my room, reading," he says. "I made a concerted effort not to go out. ... Aside from exercising, I stayed in yesterday.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"Which is rare for me. I'm trying to create a new habit of not going out and ending up, late in the evening, getting drunk somewhere. I'm trying to do that less. Not wipe it out completely, but just not [do it] as frequently."

Cutting down on his drinking, curling up with a book -- that hardly sounds like typical rock-star behavior, now, does it? Particularly when the Dave Matthews Band is one of the biggest touring acts in America right now, playing to capacity crowds from coast to coast (the group will be at the Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge Saturday and Sunday).

Nor is the Matthews Band's popularity strictly a concert-circuit phenomenon. "Before These Crowded Streets," the group's current album, has sold more than 2 million copies since knocking the "Titanic" soundtrack out of the No. 1 slot three months ago and shows no signs of slowing. Its predecessors -- 1996's "Crash" and 1995's "Under the Table and Dreaming" -- remain steady sellers.

The Matthews band has done this without the benefit of hit singles ("Stay," though seen on MTV, is nowhere on the Billboard Hot 100) and without sounding anything like the typical big-time rock act. Not only is there no electric guitar in the group -- Matthews sticks resolutely to his acoustic -- but its major instrumental voices are Leroi Moore's violin and Boyd Tinsley's saxophone.

Add in Carter Beauford's muscular, jazzy drumming and Stefan Lessard's supple, assertive bass, and you have a quintet whose sound draws on everything from folk to funk, and from fusion to African pop. "They're every bit as much [jazz/rock] Mahavishnu Orchestra as they are the Grateful Dead," says Wayne Isaak, senior vice president of music at VH1. "That combination has just made them unlike anybody else on the scene right now."

It's no wonder, then, that the 31-year-old Matthews seems such an atypical rock star. Thoughtful, soft-spoken and self-effacing, he conveys none of the arrogance or egotism normally associated with people who end up in regular rotation on MTV.

If anything, he seems slightly embarrassed at the extent to which his celebrity has grown. For instance, he turned up on the cover of Spin recently, above a cutline proclaiming him "the King of Rock." Is it good to be king, Dave? "I was very shocked by it," he says. "It was very extreme. 'King of Rock,' that was -- I don't know what to say about that. That had me dumbfounded.

"But I didn't read the article, because I can't," he adds. "I'll lose my mind. I don't know what it is, but I have some sort of embarrassment about reading quotes of myself."

It can be tempting to read Matthews' self-deprecation as a sort of misplaced modesty, an "aw, shucks!" reaction to the awesome popularity he has earned through a half-dozen years of steady touring.

True, Matthews can be quite self-critical. "We're all very critical of ourselves," he says of the band. "I am -- and justly so -- very critical of my own playing. I think my tendency to lean on the voice more is one of the reasons that I feel like I'm a little bit lacking as a guitarist."

Moreover, he freely admits that band mates can play circles around him. Get him talking about Beauford's drumming or Moore's violin work, and he sounds as much like a fan as anybody in his audience. "I mean, it's such an honor to play with all these guys in my band," he says enthusiastically.

At the same time, though, Matthews doesn't downplay his own strengths, specifically his ability as a songwriter to create the sort of musical context that inspires his band mates to play so brilliantly. "Different people have their forte," he says. "Some people are good at organizing things. Other people are great at playing. Some people are technically proficient, and some people are brilliant at improvising. I think there's greatness in every side of music.

"The sad part of music is where you get a mixture of arrogance and ignorance," he adds. "That's very dominant in a lot of the rock culture."

Resents pigeonholing

Matthews, it turns out, really dislikes a lot of modern rock culture. It's not that he has anything against the music, although his own tastes tend more toward folk, jazz, worldbeat and other "alternatives to alternative and rock." But he actively resents the way that radio stations, record companies and rock critics have tried to fence in and define what's permissible in popular music.

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