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Mortal tunes
Dave Matthews gets serious on Some Devil

Last week, the Dave Matthews Band added another chapter to their rich legacy by drawing 100,000 fans to a free show in New York Cityís Central Park. The much-hyped performance, which next month will be the subject of the bandís latest live album, was an AOL-sponsored benefit for the NYC public school system. Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes showed up for the occasion, sitting in with the group on their cover of Neil Youngís "Cortez the Killer." Other than that, it was pretty much an oversized version of your everyday DMB gig: three hours of friendly pop grooves and adventurous musical interplay.

The strangest thing about the DMB show in Central Park is that it coincides with the release of Some Devil (RCA), the first-ever Dave Matthews solo album. Produced by longtime DMB associate Stephen Harris, the disc triples the guitar firepower of Matthewsís regular outfit by teaming the strum-happy frontman with celebrated six-string buddies Trey Anastasio (Phish) and Tim Reynolds. Bassist Tony Hall and drummer Brady Blade take a breather from their work with Emmylou Harris to join the party. But thereís not one lick from any of the guys who played on "Crash into Me."

Still, it should be clear from that description that Some Devil is no radical departure for Matthews. If anything, the albumís first single, "Gravedigger," feels like a sequel to "Bartender," the somber closer on the most recent DMB disc, Busted Stuff. "Gravedigger/When you dig my grave/Would you make it shallow/So that I can feel the rain," Matthews bellows on the chorus, his voice and his all-star guitar army full of sorrow. On the verses, he rattles off a small cemeteryís-worth of headstone inscriptions, culminating with that of a young boy who "rode his bike like the devil until the day he died." His passionate performance is a worthy tribute to the deceased, and a mourning string section brings the track to a close.

To borrow a line from headline-grabbing Matthews acolyte John Mayer, whose new album just hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200, the 36-year-old Matthews is preoccupied with heavier things these days. With the possible exception of the 2001 DMB disc Everyday, thatís been the case for some time now, but "Gravedigger" is far and away the darkest song heís ever released as a single. In recent interviews, heís been making a connection between the serious tone of Some Devil and becoming a father for the first time, which he says led him to confront his own mortality. Then thereís the cloudy influence of his current adopted hometown of Seattle, where the album was recorded and where the gray cover photo of Matthews standing on a bridge appears to have been taken.

"Gravedigger" aside, Some Devil isnít all doom and gloom. Party animals the Dirty Dozen Brass Band lend a hand on the loping "Dodo," which opens the album with a chorus of mellow beauty and a tasty jazz guitar hook. A sophisticated pop vibe permeates the disc: the rhythm section are more restrained than their DMB counterparts, and Anastasio and Reynolds rein in their virtuoso instincts in favor of simple intertwining melodies. Thatís right, no jamming, although Anastasio does get to unleash his trademark ecstatic noodle at the end of the reggae-flavored love song "Up and Away."

Matthews embarks on a chiming quest for deliverance on "Trouble," a compelling rock spiritual along the lines of U2ís "I Still Havenít Found What Iím Looking For." "Save Me" is even churchier: a gospel choir stops by to testify, and the band kick up a sweaty soul backbeat. The albumís most ambitious track, "Too High," starts with just Matthews and his acoustic guitar and builds to a bashing climax that evokes Led Zeppelinís "Kashmir" with its heavy kick-drum and ominous violin crescendo.

Strings, horns, and extra guitarists aside, Some Devil easily could have been the new DMB disc instead of a Matthews solo effort. But then the frontman goes it alone on a few songs, and his solo trip starts to make a little more sense. His ghostly falsetto and elegant electric guitar playing share the spotlight on "Some Devil," which retreats to an eerie calm following the histrionics of "Gravedigger." He sings along to a hushed string quartet on "Baby," a lullaby to his twin daughters thatís as sweet as the one Scott Stapp sang to his baby boy on the most recent Creed album. As a writer and a performer, Matthews continues to justify his superstar status ó no matter what band he has behind him.

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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