Steve Tarp remembers when Dave Matthews, a waiter at Miller’s Bar, climbed onto a small stage in the dark-paneled tavern with three jazz musicians and a bassist and tried to rock ‘n’ roll.
It was 1990, and the new Dave Matthews Band didn’t exactly bring down the house.
“They had gotten together real informally, and Dave had just been messing around solo,” said Tarp, who still works at the popular downtown hangout where local musicians can get their start. “You know, they just sounded kind of rough.”
The Dave Matthews Band has smoothed out considerably since then.
Its second album in two years, “Under the Table and Dreaming,” hit No. 34 on Billboard magazine’s best-selling album charts the first week of release in September. One of the songs on it, “What Would You Say,” is playing on MTV. The group has a lucrative new recording deal with RCA, and life is one long road trip of full-house concerts.
In its year-end issue, Rolling Stone magazine picked the album as “one of the most ambitious releases of ‘94” and said the group has “chops to kill.”
Heady stuff for Matthews, a 27-year-old South African expatriate whose wide vocal range has been compared to Sting and Robert Plant but who still thinks his skills are “pretty shabby.”
“All I did was assemble my dream group of musicians - people I’d been listening to locally for years,” Matthews said in a recent interview. “So I try not to get too caught up in what other people are saying about us.”
Matthews is lead singer and guitarist, despite his low estimate of his own talents. To create his ensemble, he surrounded himself with reedman LeRoi Moore, violinist Boyd Tinsley, drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard.
The group melds American rock and Third World influences; for every song that goes into a Latin interlude or a world beat, there’s a down-home fiddle or accordian. And the latest album deals with such issues as suicide, drug addiction and love.
As a teenager in New York City, Matthews got a little performing experience with a high school band. But all that group had in common was a thirst for beer and for the big time.
“We would talk about recording but we didn’t do much about it,” he said. “Really what we did is drink too much beer and pass out. It was a great experience.”
Matthews applied for a job at Miller’s in 1986 after he moved to Charlottesville, where his mother had already moved. He worked at the bar about two years.
The band built a following along the East Coast. And in autumn of 1993 the first album, “Remember Two Things,” was released on an independent label. It has sold at a pace of about 10,000 copies per month since then, RCA spokeswoman Jill Tomlansin said. “Under the Table and Dreaming” is the group’s major label debut.
The group’s strongest following comes from alternative music enthusiasts and college campuses.
The last few years have taken the band across America and into Europe. Someday, Matthews would like to perform in South Africa, where apartheid influenced his attitudes as well as his music.