By: Chris NorrisSan Francisco, land of a thousand views. The Golden Gate Bridgefrom Baker Beach: burnt sienna slicing cerulean sky. Chinatown fromRussian Hill: a giddy bazaar overflowing tiered streets. And, ofcourse, Dave Matthews from Lombard Street: pale and slouching. “Oh,my God,” gasps one viewer. “Dave!“
San Francisco, land of a thousand views. The Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach: burnt sienna slicing cerulean sky. Chinatown from Russian Hill: a giddy bazaar overflowing tiered streets. And, of course, Dave Matthews from Lombard Street: pale and slouching. “Oh, my God,” gasps one viewer. “Dave!“
It’s a brilliant Saturday on the so-called crookedest street in the world, where Dave Matthews is indulging my request for a tourist stroll. As we descend the stone steps, a caravan of SUVs wends its way down the street’s sharply veering angles. Every other carload gives us the treatment usually reserved for the white tiger at Six Flags’ Wild Safari. Eyes brighten, arms point, hands scramble for cameras. “Hi, Dave!” is a frequent call. “Oh, my God!” is another. It isn’t like this everywhere. At awards shows, Matthews reports, “our band has long enjoyed the ability to walk the red carpet unfettered.” He jokingly pronounces the last word like a plummy British lord. “We can clear a red carpet in under five minutes.” But here, on the day that he plays a local amphitheater, Matthews, 36, exerts a peculiar effect on sightseers. It’s not Colin Farrell mayhem or Monica Lewinsky shock, but a more inviting aura that brings out tentative, often tonguetied responses to the sudden Dave Matthews-ness of it all.
“Can we take your picture?” asks a soccer mom in a Buick Rendezvous. “There’s an idea,” says Matthews, gamely posing for his seventh snapshot. “Hello,” says a teenage girl, desperately, pleadingly. The greetings get weirder–from the oddly formal (“Hi, Mr. Matthews”) to the strangely tautological (“Are you Dave Matthews from the Dave Matthews Band?”) to the flat-out goofy (“Are you guysDave Matthews?”). Matthews fields them all in a mumbly drawl, his wry, vaguely baleful expression reminiscent of silent-film comedian Buster Keaton. He’s wearing his favorite article of clothing: an offwhite, open-necked undershirt from the set of Where the Red Fern Grows, a new film adaptation of the classic children’s book, costarring Ned Beatty and Kris Kristofferson. Matthews plays a father–arecent role for him in real life, as well. “It’s a Hollywood dirty shirt,” he explains. “Meaning that no matter how many times I clean it, it stays looking dirty. But it’s my favorite ’cause it’s so comfy.”
“Hi, Dave,” calls a guy in a backward baseball hat. “Hey, how are ya?” he answers. Matthews is a true global celebrity, but a puzzling one, the Seabiscuit of rock stars. He’s a guy’s guy who rose to prominence fronting a hardworking jamband and now leads arenas full of regular folks to transcendence. He seems to be everybody’s buddy and yet a total stranger. “Dave is one of the most unassuming superstars ever,” says Bruce Flohr, his longtime A&R man.
That his name applies to an individual as well as a group effort will become clearer with the release of his first solo album, Some Devil–a moody, slightly downcast collection of tender love songs and soaring epiphanies. But the CD won’t help casual fans categorize this supposedly comfiest of artists. For one thing, the music strays pretty far from the springy, folk-funk hoedowns of his frat-party-honed quintet. Matthews’ voice opens into a fluid falsetto that recalls JeffBuckley or Coldplay’s Chris Martin. And the first single, “Gravedigger”–well, it’s not exactly keg-ready. A bluesy Southern gothic, the song straightforwardly recounts lives marked on different tombstones–name, birth date, death date, and the fleeting agonies in between–with a prayerful refrain: “When you dig my grave / Make it shallow / So I can feel the rain.” Hacky Sack to that.
The song’s video depicts lives torn by racism, war, and violence, taken from events in American history. Directed by Mark Pellington (who also did Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”), the video employs a Sixth Sense, Dave-sees-dead-people device, with a stubbly Matthews standing in a rural graveyard having visions of epochal brutality. In this season of national triumphalism, it likely will be MTV’s only clip to show a black man being horsewhipped against a tree.
“The video makes a poignant statement about our history,” says Matthews. “I think it’s very important, especially at times like these, that we remind ourselves of how recently, and how often, there’s injustice in America, caused by America. We sort of forget that when we talk about freedom and justice all the time.
“He’s a complete phony,” Matthews says of our Dubya, as we continuewalking. “I think everything about him is false. Now I just read around him–like reading journalists from other parts of the world covering his trip to Africa, where some of his stops never even left the airport. I’m quite convinced that he’s less popular in Africa than before he went there. Which is a technique he’s really mastered.”
He pauses as cars creep downhill and children scamper up. “Two years ago, the European Union wasn’t talking about the need to create an army so that they could counterbalance America,” he says. “That’s scary. People tend to think, ‘Well, the Europeans are our buddies, except we argue.’ But, no. They’re actually kind of serious.”
“Hi, Dave,” a college-age, redheaded girl calls to him.
“Hi,” he says brightly. Then, looking into the distance, he muses on. “It’s impossible that, 20 years from now, we’ll look back at this administration and say, ‘They were great.’ Unless they nuke the whole world and, you know, leave no records.”
“We’re coming to see you tonight!” says a girl walking up the steps with her family.
“Well, I hope we do all right.”
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