Dave Matthews Band, Happy Rebels

Twenty years ago, the group's studio debut offered a sound like no one else's. Why do their many detractors talk so much about the fan base, instead of the music?

Tim Larsen/AP

Fans of Dave Matthews Band are used to being laughed at. The quintet, which 20 years ago today released its first (and best) full studio album Under the Table and Dreaming, often shows up on lists of the most hated bands, and music probably isn't the main reason.

There’s a longstanding perception that the group’s diehard fans are just swarms of doofusy frat bros, flocking to the band out of some sort of musical groupthink rather than a genuine interest in artistic expression. In a hilarious essay published in The Advocate, author, journalist, and DMB superfan Benoit Denizet-Lewis recalls that upon telling his therapist he adored Dave Matthews’s music, she accused him of immaturity and insinuated that he was too old to attend concerts with “stoned, shirtless college boys.” As Salon assistant editor Prachi Gupta told WNYC’s Soundcheck, DMB is affiliated with “yuppie culture.”

This perception of the fanbase has come to dominate the conversation surrounding the band. But that obscures what actually makes DMB unique. Under The Table and Dreaming hit record shelves at 20 years ago, during one of the most impressive eras in American rock history. The early 1990s saw a preponderance of sonically interesting music and epoch-defining rock stars leading a grunge/alternative movement that trafficked in despondency and barely audible lyrics. Those acts channeled the malaise associated with Gen X counterculture into anthems that made every listener feel like a proud, marginalized slacker.

In many respects, DMB couldn’t have been more different. It wasn’t that the group didn’t value artistic credibility over commercial viability, or that its members didn’t reflect certain ‘90s pop trends—Dave Matthews, the group’s lead singer and primary songwriter, has been known to don flannel shirts with regularity. It’s just that their songs and overall aesthetic oozed optimism and feel-good vibes.

Though this happy-go-lucky outlook didn’t fit with that era’s fashionable ennui, it helped DMB attract a devoted following. So did live shows, which built a cult audience before the band tasted mainstream success. As an article in The Toronto Star noted a few weeks prior to the release of Under the Table and Dreaming, DMB fans were “willing to tour as hard as the Grateful Dead’s Deadhead hordes,” and it wasn't unusual for Matthews to hear from angry mothers who wanted their children to stop following the band and return to college. DMB encouraged its growing fanbase by allowing concert goers to bootleg their shows and share the recordings, and the band's live prowess drew the attention of RCA, the major label that released Under the Table and Dreaming.

An eclectic collection of blues, rock, funk, and folk songwriting, the album gained traction slowly, eventually pushing DMB into the mainstream. Its first single, the almost jazzy “What Would You Say,” would receive ample air time on pop radio, providing a contrast to the fuzzed-out guitar anthems of more established early ‘90s acts.

In the years after Under the Table and Dreaming, DMB continued to tour with much success. But in an ironic turn, the very factor that helped earn the band a place within the accepted pop order—legions of loyal, concert-going fans—ended up being the very thing that would eventually diminish the group’s reputation and turn them into an object of derision. DMB cannot control who its music appeals to, and as anyone who’s been to a DMB concert can attest, the crowds consist of more than just unkempt college guys sporting Greek letters. Yet the band remains such a mascot for middle-class whiteness that black fans write essays explaining themselves—even though three fifths of DMB's lineup during its heyday was black (original saxophonist LeRoi Moore died in 2008).

But the band is weirder and more visionary than people who dismiss it realize. DMB never aligned its music with many rock-and-roll tropes—they didn’t exude the rage of punk rockers, the free-love ethos of trippy jam bands like the Dead, the socially conscious soul of Dylan or Neil Young. And as The Toronto Star noted, Matthews didn’t “come across offstage as a charismatic figure of cult-following status.” The truth is, they were—don’t laugh—true originals. As a December 1994 article in The San Francisco Chronicle noted, DMB constituted “a genuinely new sound.” Rolling Stone’s review of Under the Table and Dreaming labeled the group “almost unclassifiable” and claimed they sounded “like four or five groups in one.”

Unable to lump the group within the established rock taxonomy, many people reverted to associating DMB with stereotypes about its fans. On the rare occasions that they’re not focused on the demographics of the band’s listeners, detractors snicker at the group’s tendency toward jam sessions, both live and in studio. Mushier songs like Under the Table and Dreaming’s “Satellite,” which meanders for nearly five minutes without taking the listener anywhere of consequence, lend credence to those critiques. And it's true that some of Matthews's lyrics (“Would you say you're feeling low and so / a good idea would be to get it off your mind”) push the band’s sunny playfulness to the brink of silliness. (Though lyrics for songs like “Jimi Thing” and “Rhyme & Reason” show the band’s unacknowledged thematic depth and flirt with the melancholy and anger more commonly associated with alternative rockers.)

Few in-person musical experiences, though, can rival hearing the opening riff of “Warehouse” or singing along with the last verses of “Ants Marching,” two of the strongest tracks off Under the Table and Dreaming. Even through living-room speakers, their music sounds distinct. So to discount DMB’s two-decade career as an exercise in peddling shlock to middlebrow college kids is fundamentally unfair. Whether or not the group’s songs jibe with your tastes, they’ve created a unique sound in a medium replete with predictability and sameness, and they’ve attracted a passionate following. This may not make the group may as artistically or generationally important as iconic American rock acts like The Beach Boys or The Ramones, but it means they merit a designation longed denied them: a great American band.