This day in 1994 was a big one for albums from multi-platinum American groups arriving. Not only did R.E.M. surprise all with their loud Monster album, but near the other end of the rock spectrum, Dave Matthews Band gave us their Under The Table And Dreaming. Both went on to sell over four million copies in the States alone. However, their trajectories were quite different.
R.E.M. were by then of course, a huge band coming off one of the decade’s biggest albums. Matthews on the other hand was basically just starting out. Monster debuted at #1 on the charts, Matthews took months to finally rise to #11.
By this time, Matthews was becoming well-known and had a loyal following due to a couple of years of touring with eclectic, long jam-style concerts. They were unusual for a couple of reasons. They were from Virginia and were bi-racial. More interesting was the lineup. Matthews himself was the singer and main songwriter, and he played acoustic guitar. They had a bass player (Steffan Lessard) and a drummer (Carter Beauford) like pretty much every other band, but instead of a couple more guitarists, they had LeRoi Moore on sax (and sometimes flutes) and a violinist, Boyd Tinsley. It gave them an unusual, folk-rock-Americana kind of sound that stood out at the time. They did have some electric guitars, courtesy Tim Reynolds, but he wasn’t considered a full member, or one would assume, essential for the sound.
They’d put out a live EP early in the year, which drew the attention of RCA who signed them on. Under the Table…was the resultant big-label debut. RCA were high on them, sending them to the well-regarded Bearsville Studios in upstate New York to make the record, with high-profile British producer Steve Lillywhite, who’d done magic with U2 early on in their career. It seemed a good formula. The 12 song album perhaps didn’t capture all of the band’s stage charisma or quirkiness (take for instance the song “34” which is an instrumental here but at times Matthews sings lyrics to when playing it live) but ran over an hour and greatly pleased their existing fans and made them a legion of new ones.
Although the singles didn’t sell in huge quantities – none made the top 40 – they got noticed and played on air. “What Would You Say?”, with a tasty little harmonica bit from John Popper of Blues Traveler (and Michael MacDonald’s voice in the background) made it to #5 on Mainstream Rock charts, and it, “Satellite” and “Ants Marching” all slipped into the Alternative Rock top 20. All three remain among his most popular songs and live highlights. Overall the album rose to #11, and went 6X platinum, setting the stage for a later run of seven-straight #1 studio albums they’d launch starting in 1998.
Fans love them and follow them with a loyalty that might be as close to that of the Grateful Dead’s Deadheads or Jimmy Buffett’s Parrotheads. But the crowds might not be stacked with critics. Under the Table and Dreaming didn’t generate a huge number of ace reviews. The Village Voice gave it a “C+” but thought it “as bland as a tofu sandwich.” Entertainment Weekly gave it the same grade, saying the “fancy guitar-picking and Latin percussion prove these bi-racial Virginian rockers have chops” but called the music “a formless brand of laid-back eclecticism.” Later on, allmusic would offer an opposing viewpoint, rating it 4.5-stars, Matthews’ best of the decade. They thought songs like “Ants Marching” so they “have a flair for catchy hooks” and praised the producer. “Lillywhite…manages to rein in the group’s tendency to meander.”
Matthews is a long-time director of Farm Aid and his band played their latest fund-raising show this past weekend, and is on the road this fall.