Dave Matthews is a superstar in the US with a limited following in the UK. This situation led to a poster campaign in 2001 posing the question 'Who Is Dave Matthews?'
In the kind of an ego-sapping experience one would more readily wish upon Bono, I vaguely recall a story of the South African born musician busking on the streets of Britain and practically nobody noticing.
The disparity between album sales in either side of the pond suggests that his appeal, like Robbie Williams to the Brits, is incurably culture bound.
If pressed to explain his relative failure to make inroads into markets outside of America, the consensus seems to be be that Matthews' neo-hippy music is altogether too safe and self-serving to generate the kind of global enthusiasm his PR team would wish for.
The story behind “The Lillywhite Sessions” adds a for instance to this judgement. It refers to an album's worth of tracks recorded by the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) in 2001 and produced by Steve Lillywhite. By all accounts, these were darker and bolder than anything he'd done previously, exploring hitherto unknown existential angst euphemistically described as "the underbelly of his stardom".
Yet, instead of these songs leading to a career defining 'Nebraska' moment or an experimental departure akin to 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' the songs were quietly set aside or re-recorded in a cheerier manner.
If the reports are to be believed, Matthews had succeeded only in spooking his band which in turn prompted the record label to shelve the project as if the songs were some kind of aberration. Whereas Wilco stuck to their guns and found another label to release their album to critical acclaim, it appears that Matthews accepted that he should stick to a tried and tested formula.
It is left to Chicago experimentalist Ryley Walker to present an album's worth of what might have been. Walker is a long-term fan of Matthews and his fascination with the possibilities offered by the infamous 'lost' album prompted him to re-record the twelve songs during a four-day session with two of his long-time band mates: bassist Andrew Scott Young and drummer Ryan Jewell.
The result is a jazz-tinged set of tunes, with post-rocky guitars and funky sax arrangements more akin to the meandering solo forays of Jim O'Rourke. The extended JTR is a world away from anything you'd normally associate with Matthews; compare Walker's freeform noodling to the relatively conventional jamming on JMB's live recording of the same song.
Walker’s reverence for the artist and the source material means that it is unlikely that his aim was to expose his hero's over-cautious approach to music making. But it's hard to shake the belief that this is just the kind of risk-taking record that Matthews ought to have made to shake the reputation for same old, same old he's stuck with.
Ryley Walker's website