There are at least 40 million reasons to like the Dave Matthews Band, even if you’re not a fan of their music.
For 25 years, DMB has played its own way, moving out of Charlottesville and into the international music scene on a fusion of influences including rock, country, classical and jazz to create a signature sound that defies established genre and eschews cliché.
For 17 years, the band has paid back the community from which it sprang by raising more than $40 million for its Bama Works Fund for dozens of nonprofits, charities and causes, most in Central Virginia.
“The band and the fund are a treasure that not as many people know about as should,” said Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, who saw the band’s charitable bent while serving as Charlottesville’s mayor.
“The opportunity they’ve brought to people from low-income kids and abused kids to the poor and sick is immeasurable. They’ve been involved in real estate, in the Music Resource Center and just about every nonprofit in the area,” Toscano said. “They’ve made a big difference in a lot of lives.”
Saturday night, the band merged music and philanthropy with its 25th anniversary hometown benefit concert at the John Paul Jones Arena, its ninth show there since it opened 10 years ago.
Proceeds from the show will be funneled back into the community to benefit the band’s hometown.
“They always put a percentage of every ticket sold to help fund Bama Works, but in this case we’re putting all of the proceeds into Bama Works,” said Ann Kingston, of the band’s Red Light Management team. “It should be well over a million dollars and we’ll be making some impactful grants for the community. We’re excited about it.”
Charlottesville success story
For band fans and long-time residents, the band’s history is pretty well-known.
Matthews was slinging beer and pouring drinks down at Miller’s on the Downtown Mall and writing his own songs. From his bar perch, he could listen to the eclectic mix of bands that played through Miller’s, including bands led by jazz master John D’earth.
Matthews approached a couple of top-notch local jazz men, drummer Carter Beauford and saxophonist LeRoi Moore, to lay tracks on a demo. On D’earth’s recommendation, then 16-year-old Stefan Lessard joined on bass.
Keyboard player Peter Griesar, who later left the band, and classically trained violinist Boyd Tinsley rounded out the ensemble.
Tinsley, Beauford and the late Moore grew up in the same Charlottesville neighborhood. Beauford and Moore were accomplished jazz musicians when Matthews approached them, and Tinsley had learned violin through classical music.
Lessard was playing both jazz and classical music on the bass.
They got together, recorded some demos, started getting regular gigs and soon became a popular regional draw.
The band began putting money into the community shortly after it became a regular on the summer tour circuit in the U.S. and internationally. After signing a recording contract with RCA Records, the band completed its big-label debut, “Under the Table and Dreaming,” in 1994, kicking off its first international tour with a concert in Charlottesville.
The Charlottesville City Council even proclaimed the day, Sept. 27, as Dave Matthews Band Day.
“I got to be the opening act for the band at that concert,” laughed Toscano, who serves as the House minority leader.
“I was Charlottesville’s mayor at the time and I went out on the stage to proclaim it Dave Matthews Band Day. I looked out at the audience and it was just packed with people who were all shouting ‘We want Dave! We want Dave!’” Toscano recalled. “It was great! I got to launch their first world tour.”
The album debuted at No. 34 on the Billboard 200 list, spent 116 consecutive weeks on the chart, peaked at 11 and “What Would You Say,” the band’s first single off the album, became a radio staple.
The band appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” took two tours of Europe and crisscrossed the U.S. performing, including opening for the Grateful Dead, playing the Farm Aid concert and headlining a gig at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater near Golden, Colorado.
In 1999, after three platinum albums and success on the radio and on tour, the band members decided to officially form the Bama Works Fund.
“It was a natural decision to give back on all their parts,” said Kingston. “Coran Capshaw, their manager, started looking into the best way to do that.”
Small groups, big impact
Following advice from former Charlottesville Area Community Fund President John Redick, the band set up a donor-advised fund through the organization. That way the foundation could administer the fund while the band helped review proposals and decide how much money to give.
“A portion of the proceeds from every ticket sold goes to Bama, and that enables us to build up the fund while the foundation invests it,” Kingston said. “Portions of the fund are distributed on two grant cycles each year.”
Some of the grants are large.
The band has given $500,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Virginia, some of which helped build a new facility after Moore died from complications following an ATV accident.
They donated about a half-million dollars to improve and expand the Live Arts space in Charlottesville.
They gave a half-million to help restore the historic Paramount Theater on the Downtown Mall.
They gave Building Goodness Foundation, a local charity, $250,000 to fund a trade school project in Haiti to teach Haitians to build and repair their own buildings
They donated large sums to help victims of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and a $1.5 million challenge grant to build a Habitat for Humanity project in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
But the band’s forte is helping little organizations have a bigger impact. Through their fund, the band has supported food banks and pet shelters, programs for youth and centers for the aging often with grants as small as a few thousand dollars.
“The thought when creating Bama was, ‘Let’s make some big, impactful grants, but let’s also make smaller grants,” Kingston recalled. “The idea is that a $5,000 grant can be a game changer for an organization.”
You’ll get no argument about that from Todd Barnett, the founder of The Field School in Crozet. The school provides an “academically rigorous boys middle school with particular attention to the needs and learning styles of boys” and has received several small grants.
“We’re lucky that they believe in our mission and have given us several grants of $5,000 that we use to provide scholarships to students,” Barnett said. “In the great scheme of things, it may not seem like a lot, but we have a lot of students on scholarships, and they’ve helped make it affordable.”
Barnett said the grant-writing process can take a lot of staff, time and money just to apply. That’s not true of Bama Works.
“Sometimes it almost costs as much to get the grant filled out and go through the process as the grant is worth — at least it seems that way,” he said. “But [Bama’s process] is pretty straightforward. They ask the right questions, they check you out thoroughly, but they don’t make a lot of hoops for you when you apply.”
Outside of Bama Works, band members continue to give money to the community. In April, the city of Charlottesville announced that it would partner with Matthews and Capshaw to purchase land that will serve as a critical link for the Rivanna Trail.
The Boyd C. Tinsley Foundation helps provide school tutoring, music lessons and instruments, as well as tennis lessons, to area school children.
“All of the band members have their personal charities, but they’re not really big on making a big deal out of it. They’re all cut from good cloth. They’re good people and it’s just a part of them; it’s just natural,” Kingston said.
“They’ve done a lot for the area and they continue to do a lot,” Toscano said. “They really make a big difference in people’s lives.”