Dave Matthews Band reaches out -- The group finds fans outside its usual college base but sticks with the music it knows best

A few years ago, a bunch of British scientists decided to study spiders. They gave the spiders marijuana; the spiders zoned out even before they finished spinning their webs. They gave the spiders caffeine; the webs came out looking like messy, random wisps of silk. ”But the study with spiders that I found most disturbing,” says Dave Matthews, ”was the one where the spider would build its web, and then the scientist would break it down immediately. I thought that was just a terrible experiment! The scientist who gives a spider pot, it’s sort of like, well, what’s the point? But a scientist that steals the soul by just constantly destroying the dreams of a spider?! That’s really demonic.”

Let’s use this tale as a handy metaphor. If the spider is a band and the scientist is the music industry, your average spider doesn’t stand a chance these days. The past decade is littered with the gilded cobwebs of Candlebox and Seven Mary Three, Sugar Ray and Veruca Salt — one-hit blunders who shuttled off to the bowels of oblivion faster than a flaming shot of Olestra. It wasn’t so long ago that the Dave Matthews Band — an act with the most plain-wrap name in the history of rock & roll — seemed marked for the same fate. They had a hit (1995’s rubbery ”What Would You Say?”), and they had a shtick (sax and violins instead of sex and violence) that seemed bound to amuse the press for a brief moment between grunge and electronica.

But something funny happened on the way to the K-tel compilation album. In spite of the scientists (and, yes, a fair amount of pot and coffee), the Dave Matthews Band have managed to spin a surprisingly sturdy web. Last year, on the heels of the quadruple-platinum Crash, RCA let the band’s Live at Red Rocks album leak out with barely a flicker of promotion. It landed in the top 10 and sold a million copies. This month brings Before These Crowded Streets, a long-awaited collection of new songs that, ”barring some tragedy that I don’t know about, will debut at number one,” vows Bruce Flohr, RCA’s senior vice president of A&R. ”There’s pent-up anticipation for this record. It’s like the secret’s almost out and people want to get in right before the door closes.” If it hasn’t slammed shut already: Dates on the Dave Matthews Band’s summer tour — including a colossal headlining gig at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium with Beck and Ben Folds Five as the warm-up acts — sold out in a matter of hours.

Meanwhile, something has happened to Dave Matthews that rarely happens to nice, Tom Hanksian guys with short hair and a visible lack of skin art — guys who carry around little Ziploc bags full of vitamins because, as Matthews puts it, ”I’ve got a girlfriend who wants to make sure that I stay well.” Despite an image just a shade more dangerous than Richie Cunningham’s, Dave Matthews has become a babe magnet. And he is openly, unabashedly grateful. ”The only reason I write is because of women, I’m sure of it,” he says. ”My reaction to women who say ‘I like your music’ is much stronger than when some tight-cap-wearing frat boy goes, ‘You rawk!’ When some woman says it, I melt.”