It was Aug. 19, 2008, and the Dave Matthews Band was mourning the loss of one of its own. LeRoi Moore, the shy saxophonist who'd been with the band throughout a nearly two-decade journey from tiny bars to stadiums and stardom, had died unexpectedly earlier in the day. He was at his Los Angeles home, recovering from injuries suffered in an all-terrain-vehicle accident, when he took a sudden turn for the worse. He died of pneumonia at age 46.
That night, the band played its scheduled gig at Staples Center anyway. Bass player Stefan Lessard didn't want to be there. Drummer Carter Beauford, who'd known Moore since childhood, needed to take his anger out on something and pounded away at his kit; he couldn't think of being anywhere else. The face of the band -- usually the jovial, two-stepping type -- crooned in front of the sellout crowd, and then he cried.
"It's always easier to leave than be left," Matthews said to the faces staring back at him, some of them wet with tears like his.
"No show before that or no show since will have the same significance for me," Matthews said last weekend, thinking back on the events of a year ago. "The fact that we played that show the day Roi died, there was no better thing we could have done."
It wasn't easy. Boyd Tinsley, the brawny violinist who also grew up with Beauford and Moore in the same Virginia neighborhood, sat in the back of his darkened tour bus before the group's recent gig at San Francisco's Outside Lands festival and cracked -- even still, a year removed. "I don't remember much, you know, other than hearing the news here on my bus, halfway to the gig," he said, before having to pause for a few seconds, the old tears welling up in his eyes again. "It was crushing to me, man."
But the experience also marked a new beginning for the bandmates. "The whole tragedy kind of helped us, in a weird way, to push through, to develop, to grow and mature as musicians and people," Beauford said.
DMB is gearing up for two sold-out shows at the Greek Theatre, beginning Wednesday, that mark the group's first return to L.A. since that Staples Center concert. "There's a bit of melancholy, I think, when you get back here," said Lessard, who now lives in Laguna Beach. "But he loved L.A., him and I were the two guys in the band, we just loved California."
A new urgency
Moore's death sharpened the musicians' focus, bringing a new urgency to the remaining members. In the few years prior, they'd had several false starts in the studio, struggling to put together a seventh studio record. Some bitter feelings simmered. And after so much time together, things had gotten a bit stale.
"I wanted to stop the band," Matthews admitted in his dressing room before a tour stop in Fresno, the night after Outside Lands, "because it was becoming no longer a joyful thing. And then, by confessing that fairly aggressively, it sort of got us all to stand up again and to not just sit in our little positions, trying to maintain that facade to each other."
"We needed to change the linens, strip down everything, scrub it, find out what was down there," added Beauford.
Some hurt feelings remained about the way in which two albums -- 2001's "Everyday" and 2005's "Stand Up" -- were put together, with a much more controlled writing process that circumvented some of the musicians' creative input. Improvisation, a DMB hallmark both in the studio and on stage, had vanished, replaced by a reliance on sheet music. (Matthews concedes now that the changed dynamic was perhaps a bit too "constructed" for this group.)
And then the usually quiet Moore spoke up. "He was adamant that we should have been a better band in the studio, that if we were this strong live, we should just be able to enhance that in the studio," Matthews said, before quoting his old friend: " 'It has to be honest.' "
The band worked on a bigger sound. Tim Reynolds, the guitar whiz who'd played on the band's '90s records, returned to the fold, and Moore, who told friends that his saxophone could sometimes "feel a bit lonely" in a rock band, enlisted the help of trumpeter Rashawn Ross to create a horn section that could match the punch coming from the other instruments.
Writing and discovering the music as a collective -- a process more akin to the band's earliest work -- eventually yielded this summer's "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King." Moore's passing came in the early stages of the album's recording, but producer Rob Cavallo salvaged his horn from those early sessions and preserved it on multiple tracks.
In its four-star review, Rolling Stone called the album "a New Orleans funeral parade -- mourning and zest balled into big, brawny music"; The Times' Ann Powers called it "a renewal of band vows, made more intense by the loss of a key player." The collection debuted at No. 1, tying DMB with Metallica as the only groups to have five consecutive studio albums debut at the top of the sales charts.
"This is the most honest and unapologetic record we've made," Matthews said. "And that's the goal, right? To be honest and unapologetic. For me, I don't want to fake it. I don't want to act cool. I don't want to write the perfect pop tune. That's not what motivates me, because it's a therapeutic life that I look for in music. It's not like I want to be a rock star. I wanted to be a rock star when I was 12. By the time I was 18, I wanted to find some answers."
A frenzied jam
On stage in San Francisco, he and the band seemed to find one. During a rollicking set that stretched past two hours, trumpeter Ross and new saxophonist Jeff Coffin propelled a frenzied jam during "Jimi Thing" that inspired Fergie and apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas, an Outside Lands act that had been watching, to run on stage and dance with Matthews.
"I guess some bands might be, like, 'Who do you think you are?' But what moved them to come on stage was joy, and they were just carried away," Matthews said. "That's kind of what our music is."
DMB ended the night with a cover of Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," the last song they ever played with Moore on stage. Here again, these seven men danced, they sang, they smiled. And when the music finally stopped, the audience kept the tune going, clapping their hands overhead as that one line -- "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin" -- floated up, again and again, into the night.
"If you can crack that joy in the most painful moments of your life, if you can tell a joke that will bust your side, that's the crack I'm aiming for," Matthews said afterward. "That's the sort of hole in the armor for me, to cross my eyes and stick my tongue out and laugh at the enemy, you know?"