The Dave Matthews Band is on the rise -- Can the audience-sensitive, grassroots musical group make it big?

By EW Staff
Updated June 02, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

His album is platinum, but at the moment, Dave Matthews is an appealing shade of gold. Bathed in the warm glow of Lava lamps and candles, and sprawled across a black leatherette couch beneath a tapestry, Matthews, 28, looks more like one of the thousands of undergrads clamoring for him in the cavernous room below than the star he is fast becoming. So what if the International Ballroom, the ”club” where his band will be headlining tonight, is nothing but a fancy name for an ex-supermarket in an area of south Houston? ”We’ve really come up in the world,” laughs Matthews. ”We started at the 7-Elevens, but now we get to play the Piggly Wiggly.”

Actually, the origins of the Dave Matthews Band are not nearly so glamorous, nor its accomplishments so modest. Under the Table and Dreaming, the group’s major label debut, stands at No. 14 on the Billboard album chart. And the band’s first single, ”What Would You Say,” like Counting Crows’ ”Mr. Jones,” has become a cross-format radio-video staple, played on rock, alternative, Top 40, and adult alternative stations, as well as MTV and VH1.

As with many ”overnight successes,” however, DMB’s was years in the making, fired by a tenacious do-it-yourself approach. By playing nearly 200 gigs a year and releasing their own CDs, they built up such a zealous following that when Under the Table entered the album chart at No. 34, neither MTV nor most of America had even heard of them.

A South African native, Matthews moved to the New York City area in 1969, when his father, a physicist, landed a job with IBM. After finishing high school back in Johannesburg, he bummed around for a few years before settling in 1986 in Charlottesville, Va., where he brought a few of his original songs to drummer Carter Beauford, now 36, and saxophonist Leroi Moore, 33, two acclaimed local jazz musicians. With the addition of violinist Boyd Tinsley, 31, and bassist Stefan Lessard, 20, the Dave Matthews Band was born.

At first, the quintet took whatever gigs it could get, which meant frat parties and sorority soirees at colleges throughout the Southeast. The relatively open-minded — and occasionally addled — students proved the perfect audience for the band’s hard-to-label sonic blend: jazz-rock fusion grooves and improvisations à la Weather Report; melodies carried by violin, saxophone, and acoustic guitar; Matthews’ earnestly delivered, world-weary, impressionistic lyrics. ”If you go to a club in a town where you’ve never been and you don’t have an album out, nobody’s gonna come see you,” says Matthews. ”But if you play at college parties, you have a guaranteed crowd and guaranteed pay, and the next time you go to that town you do have an audience.”

Before long, new fans were telling their friends about DMB, and the band was venturing farther afield, first to resorts in Colorado, then to the Northeast. Because their sound was so mutable, and no two gigs were ever alike, DMB, like the Grateful Dead and other rootsy jam bands such as Phish and Blues Traveler, encouraged an army of fans to record shows and trade the bootleg tapes among themselves. ”It got to the point here there’d be 10 or 15 decks stacked up at the soundboard,” recalls Moore. Also like the Dead, the group assembled a mailing list, wrote a newsletter, and started a mail-order business offering DMB hats and T-shirts. On average, according to manager Coran Capshaw, close to 250 merchandise orders are shipped each day.