Trauma, Therapeutic Expression, and the Dave Matthews Band

The music of the Dave Matthews Band is mostly upbeat in spirit. Concerts exhibit as much, with a bonding, party-like atmosphere of tossed beach balls and wafts of savory smoke and a fan culture that encourages camaraderie and togetherness. While many of the band’s songs are celebratory in nature, their lyrics, however, often express topics of death and a carpe diem mentality that is linked to the unknown length of time any person has in life. The accompanying music that highlights these darker topics does so sometimes explicitly but more often in disguised tones.

Trauma has been an unfortunate source of inspiration for the Dave Matthews Band. Their 2009 album, Big Whiskey and The GrooGrux King, is dedicated to band member, LeRoi Moore, who died in August 2008 due to complications from an ATV accident a few months earlier. As such, the album serves not only as a memorial to their bandmate, but also as a therapeutic coping mechanism to continue on without their friend. Moore, himself, was the GrooGrux King, a nickname ascribed by the band. The album’s opening instrumental track, ‘Grux’, begins with a prerecorded sax solo by Moore. It evokes both the spirit of Moore and the album. Matthews has described their term GrooGrux as “something that was happening, something that was cool, something that was amazing. It was sort of like a spirit or a musical thing.” The placement of Moore’s solo, his ‘Grux,’ at the album’s opening leaves his spirit very present on the album. In a therapeutic vein, the third track on the album, ‘Funny the Way it is,’ addresses the binary contradictions inherent in life and the inability to make sense of it all. The chorus notes that some are hungry while others eat out and that a song of heartbreak can sometimes become another person’s favorite song.  Similarly, the track, ‘Why I Am,’ addresses the finality of life and a similar set of binaries of life and death, slave and master, priest and witch, happy and sad. These tracks and others on the album serve a clear purpose of therapeutic wrestling with the tragic and traumatic aspects of life that defy any sense of meaning and purpose. ‘Why I Am’ finds comfort in its homage to Moore, “Still here dancing with the GrooGrux King” and “Heaven or hell, I’m going there with the GrooGrux King.”

Another trauma struck the band earlier in its history. In early 1994, Dave Matthews’s sister, Anne, was murdered by her husband in South Africa. Her husband then committed suicide. Matthews does not often discuss the matter. However, the album, Under The Table and Dreaming, is dedicated to her with the inscription “In Memory of Anne” printed beneath the CD in the jewel box. Notably, two weeks of concerts were cancelled in January of 1994, as Matthews travelled to South Africa to deal with this tragedy. (Martell 2004, 34) It is an understatement to say that this incredible trauma, encountered right at the opening of the tour, had a significant impact on the band and, specifically, on Matthews as he sang these songs each night. The opening track of the album, ‘Best of What’s Around,’ invites just such a therapeutic interpretation. “Hey my friend, it seems your eyes are troubled. Care to share your time with me? Would you say you’re feeling low? And so a good idea would be to get it off your mind.” As one possible indicator of therapeutic recovery from trauma, a spectrum of Dave Matthews’s vocal timbres can be traced throughout the work of the band, but particularly on Under The Table and Dreaming. I call these timbres Happy Dave and Sad Dave. The Happy Dave timbre can be found on ‘Ants Marching,’ which sets Matthews’s most common vocal quality, complete with his trademark falsetto leaps, against an upbeat, equally playful accompaniment, and ‘Lover Lay Down,’ a traditional soft-styled Dave Matthews Band love song. Examples of Sad Dave include ‘Rhyme and Reason,’ and it makes a brief appearance at the end of ‘What Would You Say?‘Warehouse’ provides a unique glimpse into these two personae as both Happy Dave and Sad Dave are present. This song is perhaps the best example, as it represents a microcosm of the therapeutic discussion that these two vocal timbres maintain across the album.

This spectrum of emotional representations is not confined to just the band’s music. Numerous appearances within popular culture paint a similar spectrum of emotions, with representations of the Happy Dave and Sad Dave personae. With Grover on Sesame Street, he demonstrates that he often wears his heart on his sleeve and sings a song about the difficulty in describing his feelings. Grover opens up to Matthews, “I am feeling a feeling, and it is not a very good feeling…I do not know what to call this feeling.” They experience a cooperative therapeutic session as they sing through their feelings and end the session with the realization that the new feeling of friendship has left them in a happier place. On the sitcom, Parks and Recreation, the light-hearted, positive side of Matthews has also been contrasted with a darker side. In a scene from Season 5, Episode 6, “Ben’s Parents,” Chris Traeger, Pawnee, Indiana’s city manager played by Rob Lowe, is sad, an unusual state-of-being for the overly positive and exuberant Chris. The scene begins with an interesting positive/negative experience when Chris’s girlfriend, Anne, offers him some shrimp to eat. Chris’s friends and employees, April and Andy, riff off of the shrimp experiment and use opposite word associations of happy and sad to cheer up Chris. Andy lists happy things such as pizza, the beach, and rock and roll music. For each happy thing, Andy lists, April snidely adds something sad, repeating, “Snails crawling out of your mouth,” to help, Chris, at least conceptually, return to a place of psychical balance. Their odd form of therapeutic intervention closes with the punch line of the scene, as the two sides of Dave Matthews make an appearance. Andy closes his list of happy things, enthusiastically listing, “the Dave Matthews Band!” Demonstrating the two personae of the band as well as reflecting positive and negative associations with the band by the listening public, April counters sardonically with the same answer, “the Dave Matthews Band.” Finally, a skit from the November 21, 2009 episode of Saturday Night Live also demonstrates these two sides to Matthews’s personae and his spectrum of vocal timbres. On ‘The Mellow Show with Jack Johnson,’ the happy side of Matthews is portrayed by Bill Hader as Dave Matthews, singing in the well-known Happy Dave style. Matthews, himself, also makes an appearance, portraying Ozzy Osborne and singing “I am tired, man,” a spoof of Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man.’ The vocal style in the ‘Iron Man’ spoof follows Ozzy closer than Dave and emulates the growly and guttural Sad Dave style. Each of these representations in popular culture reflect the same type of therapeutic wrestling with light and dark, happy and sad, seeking the balance that is necessary for mental health that is found in the music of the Dave Matthews Band.

–Nathan Fleshner, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Tennessee, USA

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