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Out of grief they rekindle their groove

Dave Matthews Band honors late saxophonist on heartfelt CD

Dave Matthews and his band made a renewed commitment to their music and their friendships in the wake of the death of sax player LeRoi Moore. Dave Matthews and his band made a renewed commitment to their music and their friendships in the wake of the death of sax player LeRoi Moore. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / May 29, 2009
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The first sound you hear on the vibrant new Dave Matthews Band album, "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King," out Tuesday, is a contemplative sax line. It feels relaxed, offhanded, simultaneously pensive and joyful. It sounds as if the musician were just sitting on a fire escape somewhere playing for his own pleasure and someone surreptitiously captured the moment.

"The true essence of the band is on this record, and it starts off right there," Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard says of "Grux," the opening interlude played by the band's late sax player, LeRoi Moore.

Moore, who passed away in August due to complications from injuries he sustained in an ATV accident in June, also provides the album's coda, a chipper little snippet stuck onto the end of the final tune, "You and Me."

Those bits, says Lessard, are both a tribute to Moore and emblematic of the band's return to a sense of from-the-ground-up, collective composition.

"Everything gets produced and becomes these great tunes, but ["Grux" represents] the original idea of something and that's how we get to it, just by playing along with each other."

That healthy musical group dynamic reflects a healthy, and hard won, interpersonal group dynamic. The Virginia quintet, which rose to stadium-level success in the 1990s on the back of its improvisational fusion of genres, had been flirting with creative and personal burnout after more than 15 years on the road and in the studio.

But Lessard, on the phone from Laguna Beach during a break in the tour that brings the band to Fenway Park tonight and tomorrow, says the members made a renewed commitment to the music and their friendships prior to the "GrooGrux" sessions. "We wanted to release a record where we felt we had our whole heart into it," says Lessard.

And you can hear it. It's in the way that Matthews whimsically indulges his lascivious proclivities in the raunchy, horn-soaked funk rocker "Shake Me Like a Monkey" or screams until he's hoarse on the uncharacteristically hard-rocking "Time Bomb." It oozes from the smoky harmonies and sinuous melody of the ballad "Lying in the Hands of God." It slithers out of the serpentine Eastern rhythms of "Squirm."

"I think that this is a return but maybe with a little more of a mature sound," says Lessard of what he believes is the group's strongest album in a decade. He's grateful that the group regained its equilibrium and began re cording before Moore passed away. (Jeff Coffin of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones also contributes parts and is reprising his role as the band's touring saxophonist.)

"LeRoi loved being in the studio. He was really excited to work with [producer] Rob Cavallo, and he was really excited about the way we were approaching it with these songs: getting together in a room and taking ideas that we'd hashed out during a jam session and creating arrangements," Lessard says. "There's video of us back in Seattle and LeRoi's so into it saying, 'Hey, try this here and try this there!' And I'm thinking that's a lot of work for me, man."

After Moore's death, it was that energy that got the band back into the studio. "That original excitement that 'Roi had with the music that we were making really inspired us to continue and get that feeling onto the record."

Lessard credits longtime Green Day producer Cavallo with helping capture that energy by encouraging the band to experiment with its trademark jams.

"He said, 'You guys go out there and just play whatever you want but I'm going to stop you at about 10 minutes," says Lessard, recalling that Cavallo would then challenge the band to change tempo or key or vibe. "We probably had a total of 40 or some little jams, and he brought his favorite 20 to Seattle and said, 'There's a song inside this jam. We just have to figure out what it is.' And that was probably the big difference of anything we've ever done."

"The circumstances are horrible to have lost him," Lessard says of his bandmate and friend. "But he left us with such a great body of work and with such great ideas we were just so lucky."

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

DAVE MATTHEWS BAND

At Fenway Park tonight and tomorrow, with Willie Nelson & Friends opening at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $75 at 800-514-3849 and www.livenation.com

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