Under the Table and Dreaming

Under the Table and Dreaming

From its declarative name to its uncanny lineup, the Dave Matthews Band began largely as a lark. In the early 1990s, Matthews was a bartender at a bustling tavern in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he spent his time drawing, acting, and sometimes singing on the side. Some of his early demos caught the attention of a few sharp local musicians with some time to spare; in turn, their subsequent recordings—and their willingness to play anywhere, and cut loose onstage—caught the attention of college kids and jam enthusiasts at the edge of Appalachia. By the time the Dave Matthews Band signed a major-label deal, just two years into its existence, the group was already a regional phenomenon, with a self-released debut and a devoted live audience trading tapes across state lines. Still, the band’s rapid rise after the release of its sprawling 1994 debut, Under the Table and Dreaming, even caught veteran producer Steve Lillywhite off-guard. Matthews’ acoustic rock songs—backed by the restless drums of Carter Beauford, and gilded by the horns of LeRoi Moore and fiddle of Boyd Tinsley—sounded like little else on rock radio. In a voice that his critics likened to Kermit the Frog, Matthews sang of being your little brother (“Dancing Nancies”), of monkeys on a string (“What Would You Say”), and of long draws from mellow joints (“Jimi Thing”). These dozen songs helped galvanize the vanguard of a burgeoning neo-hippie movement, and offered hooks that became instant crossover bait. With its relentless snare thwacks and violin line that recalled an alarm clock’s call, “Ants Marching” became a rush-hour staple, a reminder that no one else really wanted to go to work, either. With its hypnotic guitar pattern and counting-game lyrics, “Typical Situation” captured the same mid-1990s malaise as, say, Pearl Jam (albeit with much softer sounds). There was also weed, optimism, sex, and a John Popper harmonica solo that itself felt like a party on a summer lawn. Given the broader cultural moment of 1994, Under the Table and Dreaming could have been an anomaly, a flash in the musical pan. Instead, the album became proof that listeners wanted an alternative to alternative rock, built on something other than groaned grievance.

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