God’s Doing and Humans’ Being: Dave Matthews Band’s Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

November 21, 2011 at 1:14 pm, by

NOTE: This is a long blogpost; however, it is a review of a long album. This review ain’t thorough, but I hope it does some justice to a very moving album.

It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around Dave Matthews Band‘s 2009 release, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.

Aside from the fact that the disc features DMB‘s strongest jamming on a CD since 2002’s Busted Stuff (or maybe even 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets), the band’s fans will never forget this disc. It’s the last studio album to feature the virtuosity of founding member LeRoi Moore, the band’s saxophonist (nicknamed “Groogrux”), who passed away in the middle of making the album.

Purists may be turned off by some of the studio tricks that energize this album (vocal distortion on “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” lo-fi sampling at the end of “Squirm,” etc.); however, it is precisely that modern technology that enabled Moore to co-write and appear on over half of the album’s tracks–several months after his death. (Talk about techiyyat hammetim; we’ve can now resurrect the dead on Pro Tools in a recording studio!)

The album art (drawn entirely by Dave Matthews himself) serves as a tribute to Louisiana Voodoo and its adjacent cultures of jazz and vice that infatuated DMB even before Hurricane Katrina (check out “Louisiana Bayou” on 2005’s Stand Up). But, not only is there some Voodoo magic in the air, there is also a haunting sense of religiosity about this album.

Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is a theodicy album. This collection of songs asks: how can we accept a God who allows suffering in this world?

In “Lying in the Hands of God,” Matthews presents himself as an inconsolable Job-like figure. “Save your sermons,” sings Matthews. “If you knew what I feel, then you couldn’t be so sure. / I’ll be right here, lying in the hands of God.” No words are going to end or justify Dave’s sorrow for losing Moore or the anger felt towards God. Dave and his fate are all in God’s hands.

In “Time Bomb,” Matthews presents absurd hypothetical situations (what it would be like if he literally “blew up,” or “if Martians fell from the sky”), and he asks us how we would react. In the final verse, Dave sings, “When everything starts to fall / So fast that it terrifies you, / When will you hit the wall?” What Dave is trying to tell us is: when something you can’t believe happens–and when it makes no sense–all you really want to do is give up and die. In the first chorus, Dave vows, “Baby, when I get home / I’m gonna believe in Jesus” and then later, a bit masochistically, “Hammer in the final nail, / And lean me up against Jesus.” Dave Matthews is ready to die for the sins of an irrational universe.

And though there are no words in it, one of the most moving tracks on the album is “Grux,” 71 seconds of an intimate improvisation from just the original DMB: Matthews, Moore, Carter Beauford, Stefan Lessard, and Boyd Tinsley. (The rest of this album is very guest-heavy; additional musicians play on every track besides “Grux.”) Though Moore’s sax takes the lead in this jam, the music theory behind “Grux” speaks very loudly and clearly. Paralleling that same universe of “Time Bomb” and “Lying in the Hands of God,”–that world where, try as humans might, God will always have the upper hand–“Grux” is a jam that has no classic dominant chord. Not only that, but just like Moore’s life, this jam seems to be cut just a little too short…

BONUS PARAGRAPH FOR MUSIC NERDS: The dominant chord in a major scale is usually the V chord. The entire jam is composed of I7 and IV chords. To make things even more complicated, “Grux” is actually played in a Mixolydian scale, which is technically the scale that would be most naturally derived from creating an octave-scale centered on the root note of a dominant 7 chord of a major scale. So, there is some semblance of a dominant chord in the music, but it is still far from a classic dominant chord.

BACK TO SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING: DMB’s message is very clear here. Despite God’s words in Genesis 1:26 and 1:28–that whole business about humans having dominion over the earth–Dave tells us that we actually have no say. If God wants to strike us down, Dave tells us we’re all going down; we can kill ourselves over it, but we have no control over our destiny. Just as “Grux” has no dominant chord, so too humanity has no dominant cord with which to pull the strings of the universe.

But, actually… DMB’s full message is not so clear. In “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” Dave says “I ain’t waiting for the world to change. / Gonna change the world for you.”

Dave actually realizes that he can be an agent for change in the world. In fact, he can change the world completely. (Talk about tikkun olam–repairing the world. Dave’s gonna fix it all!)

Dave offers us an intriguing paradox in “Why I Am.” Dave says he “grew drunk on whiskey turned into wine” until he realized that he was “slave and master at the same damn time.”

Matthews calls himself “a faithful sinner” in “Spaceman,” and he isn’t lying. He has faith in humanity’s good will and in change. Also, even if he blames God for chaos in the universe, you can’t deny that Mr. Matthews believes in God.

It’s not easy, but Dave truly believes that he is both subservient to God and able to realize his own full potential. In “Why I Am,” Dave relates this conundrum and says, “That’s why I am / Still here dancing with the GrooGrux King.”

You’ve really got to celebrate whenever you can. Life is too short. “Doesn’t everybody deserve to live the good life?” asks Dave in “Spaceman,” and then he remind us, “It don’t always work out.”

So, yes, there is awful tragedy in the universe. You might believe, like Dave does, that tragedy is God’s fault, or you might believe more like Jewish process theology would suggest, that tragedy is the fault of erratic life forms and chaos in the universe. Either way, it can really bring us down.

But, the album ends with Dave’s dream of rising above it all. In “You And Me,” Dave tells his lover, “We’re not tied to the ground… not falling, but rising,” as he and his lover travel “all the way to the end of the world.”

“When the kids are old enough,” Dave prays. “We’re gonna teach them to fly.”

If tragedy has taught Dave only one positive thing, it’s perseverance. You must try not to let the world get you down. You have to find a reason to love being alive. Just as Dave can sing “Why I Am,” we must be able to sing and dance and celebrate our existence.

If you can learn to fly when the weight of the world keeps pushing you down, then you will feel as if the whole world is in your hands: no longer just in the hands of God. The truly faithful life is not mere subservience. It is partnership. You and God. You and a lover. You and a friend. You and family. You and chaos. You and humanity. You and the dead. You and the living.

“You and me,” sings Dave. “We can do anything… You and me, together.”

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