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NASHVILLE (Billboard) - From the bluesy sax solo that opens the album, to the inspired songs and performances throughout, it's clear that this one's for LeRoi.
"Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King," the Dave Matthews Band's first album since 2005, draws upon a number of sources of inspiration: producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance), the band's maturation and a focus on creating a studio project on a level with the band's potency as one of the most popular live acts in rock history. But it's hard to deny the impact of the loss of founding member LeRoi Moore, who last summer died of complications from injuries suffered in an all-terrain-vehicle accident after work on the album had begun.
"Everything was really hard after Roi's death," Matthews says. "But when we were all spending time together and listened to what he had already played, we really had time to think about him and be grateful for the time we had with him."
Violinist Boyd Tinsley agrees that the sessions helped pull the band members together. "You're in the studio and you look around, and there's somebody missing," he says. "I know there were some moments for me that were really tough in the studio."
Even so, the energy around the DMB camp is positive now as the members gear up to promote what they feel could be a career-changing album, due June 2 on RCA.
The Mardi Gras-inspired "Groogrux" began more than a year ago at the band's hometown studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Moore's skills as an arranger and idea man were instrumental in putting together many of the musical concepts that led to the songs on the record.
"We had two, maybe three sessions before he had the accident," says drummer Carter Beauford, "and those were the very crucial stages of this project, because we had to lay down the very foundation of this whole sound."
After Moore's accident while on a tour break in July and his death in August, the band resumed work on the album last fall in Seattle. The band took a break for the holidays and regrouped earlier this year in New Orleans, with final work completed at Cavallo's home studio near Los Angeles.
Returning to the studio after Moore's death brought practical as well as emotional challenges. "Besides playing the horn, LeRoi was a great band member, a great musical conceptualist," Cavallo says. "We missed his brain, we missed his presence. We were lamenting all the time, 'We wish Roi was here. What would he do?'"
Moore's work is all over the album, culled from performances he had already put in for the project. "We created a giant ProTools file that had all of his parts, even if he was just tinkering around during a demo phase off-mic," Cavallo says. "We scoured the hard drives to find all of these moments he had."
At its heart, "Groogrux" is a musically ambitious record -- and certainly one of the band's most accessible, likely not only to please longtime fans but to draw in plenty of new ones.
"If someone tells me, 'I don't like it,' I can say, 'That's your problem, because it's good, bro,'" Matthews says.
Highlights include the funk-rock rave-up "Shake Me," the stirring ballad "In the Hands of God," the swampy rocker "Cockadile," radio-friendly fare like "Why I Am," which features playful horns over a solid rock riff and a hooky chorus, "Funny the Way It Is," which parlays a subtle intro into a soaring, syncopated anthem, and set pieces "Skworm" and "Time Bomb," the latter featuring some of Matthews' most fiery studio vocals in years.
It seems everyone in the group was inspired to make a landmark Dave Matthews Band album, one that lives up to their legendary onstage alchemy. "I think we finally managed to get it," Matthews says. "It doesn't make sense that you could do something sort of extravagant live -- if that's where your strengths are -- (and) that you shouldn't be able to do something even more wild when you're in the studio. I just think we managed to find our groove."
Matthews' lyrics explore familiar DMB themes of spirituality, love and social issues, but they feel more emotional this time, even if "Groogrux" isn't an overly dark album.
"I don't think there's any need to be lonely and overtly, self-indulgently mournful on this record," Matthews says. "That wouldn't serve us, Roi or anybody. One of the things about playing music for all of us is that it's a source of joy. So even if we're singing about death or loss or the end of the world, at the very core of everything there's got to be hope."
Cavallo says the trip to the Big Easy was a positive creative influence. The Mardi Gras-influenced album art, drawn by Matthews, is an intricate and compelling parade scene and will be incorporated into tour imagery. "New Orleans rubbed off on the record a lot," Cavallo says. "You can see its influence on the cover; you can see it in different songs, different lyrics, different attitudes. A lot of it came from that city."
New ideas are crucial to a band nearly 20 years old. "I think that's important, and that's one reason why we keep changing our live set, because we never want it to get repetitive," bassist Stefan Lessard says.
DMB will begin its 2009 tour April 14 at New York's Madison Square Garden. The group's status as one of the top touring bands remains a core element of its identity. Dating to 1994, DMB has rung up grosses totaling more than half a billion dollars and attendance of 14 million from 760 headlining shows reported to Billboard Boxscore.
The band plans to make new material part of the set list and, as is typical, the "Groogrux" songs will find a new life onstage. "We've played them all, but we're going to have some extensive rehearsals before the tour starts -- get them all oiled, lubed up and ready to go," Beauford says. "By the time we step onstage for the first show, these tunes are going to be ready. By the middle of the summer, it's going to be a whole other story then, because most of the new tunes that we do develop and grow into something fresh and new by the middle of the tour."
Keeping things fresh is essential, Lessard says. "As a musician there's this saying that you never stop learning, you never get to the point where you play music and you kind of know it all. There's always places to go and new things to learn, so it's impossible in anyone's lifetime to become complacent."
The band members seem to be approaching this next chapter with renewed vigor. "We all pulled together, stronger than we've ever pulled together before, and we made it through," Beauford says. "We still have a journey ahead of us -- it's not over. But we were all there for each other and will continue to be."
So if the new album is for LeRoi, it's also for the future of the band and its recording legacy. "We did, I think, stand up for him on this record," Matthews says. "He was always the one saying, 'Man, we've got to get it right in the studio. If we fulfilled our potential in the studio, it would be a whole different thing. That's where we should be excelling.' The really sad thing about this is he's not here to see the finished product, but I think we came up with a record that he would have been really happy with."
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters