Tennessee has Memphis; Georgia, Augusta; Louisiana, New Orleans. And Virginia? Charlottesville.
The college town at the heart of the state fosters the same kind of creative energy as the great musical cities of the South. Jazz nights and open mics give birth to bands and groups with unusual stores of talent. Many stay close to home, touring the local circuit.
One did not.
In 1991, a young man with a history as bumpy as the Blue Ridge was working at Miller’s Bar in Charlottesville. His story began in South Africa, but its trail weaved in and out of the States: New York, Cambridge, New York again, South Africa again. But it had settled, for the time being, in Charlottesville, a city his parents called home before his birth.
While tending bar at Miller’s in late 1990, this man—Dave Matthews, of course—befriended a lawyer, Ross Hoffman. Hoffman was familiar enough with the local music scene to understand that Matthews had talent, and he encouraged the young South African to record a demo. He also offered up the names of other Charlottesville musicians he should reach out to, men with his level of talent, his taste in music, and, perhaps, a willingness to help with the new project.
One of these men was drummer Carter Beauford. Matthews knew of Beauford and his saxophone-playing compatriot, LeRoi Moore, from the gigs they played across the county in various jazz groups. The two musicians both grew up musical—Beauford with a jazz trumpeter as a father, Moore as a student of the alto sax from junior high. When Beauford heard Matthews’ solo demo, he agreed to play drums in his band. And when Beauford shared the demo with a dubious Moore, it took no time at all for him to agree too.
According to Matthews, he chose Beauford and Moore not because he particularly wanted a saxophonist or a drummer, but because he idolized the men as musicians, and because playing with them was an honor he had to pursue. As his band took shape—a product of accident and intention alike, but most of all a product of passion—Matthews realized that his ultimate goal was to surround himself with the best musicians possible. The end sound he hadn’t decided on, but he knew it would be great.
The trio began working on songs in early 1991. As their sound took shape, they began to seek out other musicians to bring into their fold. When they tapped local jazz legend and UVA professor of music John D’earth for recommendations, his first choice was an interesting one: a sixteen-year-old bass prodigy named Stefan Lessard.
Lessard considered the proposal from Matthews, Beauford, and Moore, and agreed not because of a teenaged fantasy of fame but because he knew working with such experienced musicians would be a fantastic way to continue his musical education.
The band next added keyboardist Peter Griesar (who only stayed with Dave Matthews for a few years), and finally Boyd Tinsley, a classically trained violinist. Tinsley was originally approached about a guest appearance on the song “Tripping Billies,” but by the middle of 1991 he was a full-time member of the band, his stringed notes defining the unique sound of the Dave Matthews Band.
Before spring’s buds popped in 1991, the band was ready to perform Dave Matthews’ original melodies. What had originated as a way for Matthews to record some of his own songs had morphed quickly into a powerhouse ensemble with true staying power.
Their first public appearance was in March of 1991, at a Middle East Children’s Alliance Benefit at Trax Nightclub, and then they appeared next at the City of Charlottesville’s Earth Day Festival in April. In May, the Dave Matthews Band’s first official gig took place at a private rooftop party in downtown Charlottesville.
The talented group easily booked regular appearances at local music hotspots like Trax and Eastern Standard. Word of the rockers spread through the resounding clap of applause, and soon they were traveling outside of Charlottesville to nearby cities and counties to play for increasingly filled rooms. Their music spilled across the state, dripped to the north and south, and by the end of the year they were selling out shows in North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington D.C, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Today Dave Matthews Band is one of the most iconic and recognizable bands of the ’90’s. But not so long ago, Dave Matthews was just the name of a bartender with a demo in one of our musical Southern cities.