Pop music take note: It’s a jam-band world
February 11, 2004
The jam-band world shows indications of thriving commercially. The biggest, most successful event of the summer was Bonnaroo, a gathering of the jam bands over a June weekend in middle-of-nowhere Manchester, Tenn. The three-day concert was hailed not only musically, but also for being basically hitch-free, without the violence and other scandals that have plagued other recent, massive outings. And while tickets for recent Denver concerts by such rock ‘n’ roll machines as Bruce Springsteen and The Who could be had for a song, the toughest ticket going at the moment is for the upcoming reunion shows by alpha-jam band Phish. Phish is ending its two-plus-year hiatus with a New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden, followed by three nights at Hampton, Va., and tickets are virtually impossible to get, with seats available through online schemes for up to $4,000. Yes, a four with three zeros.In other concert news, organizers of Terrapin Station, the summer’s Grateful Dead Family Reunion, had to plead with Deadheads not to show up without tickets for the two-day, sold-out event in Wisconsin. Phil Lesh & Friends, the group led by former Grateful Dead bassist Lesh, sold out two shows at Red Rocks last month. Even closer to home, Jazz Aspen is discovering the power of jam bands, with huge turnouts at the last two Labor Day Festivals for the likes of Blues Traveler, and Bob Dylan, whose appeal lies at least as much with the young jam-band crowd as with aged folkies.Even away from the massive festivals and such unique events as the Phish comeback, things are rosy in the jam world. Widespread Panic lost its lead guitarist, Michael Houser, to cancer, but not its momentum: Panic has sold out the online allotment of tickets for its three-night Halloween run in New Orleans, and is following with a tour of arenas in the Southeast. (Further proof of the demand for Panic’s music: Two Widespread Panic cover bands played in Aspen on the same night last weekend.) Acts like Gov’t Mule and surf-folk singer Jack Johnson are climbing higher on the rungs of success.Jam bands, a lot of them at least, seem to have figured something out in the area of sustained success. Perhaps the biggest thing they have realized is that the one thing that can’t be mass-produced is the concert experience, the coming together of musicians and audience for a live event. Jam bands have long geared their careers toward touring, and providing reasons – varied song selections, excellent sound systems, fan-friendly ambience – for fans to come to their shows again and again. It’s not a road to quick riches, but it does seem to be a path toward sustained careers, fan loyalty over the long run, and a break from the flash-in-the-pan syndrome of the pop machine.Then there is the artistic side of the music. Sanctuary Records has released a two-CD set from Bonnaroo, “Live From Bonnaroo,” that shows just how thriving the jam-band scene is creatively.The set contains one song from each of 21 acts, and the range is immense – from the New Orleans sounds of the Dirty Dozen Brass band to the jazz-touched vocalizing of songbird Norah Jones, the near-traditional bluegrass of the Del McCoury Band to the virtuosic string music of Bla Fleck & Edgar Meyer. There are also tracks from the pillars of the jam scene: Phil & Friends, Widespread Panic, the String Cheese Incident, and Trey Anastasio, the Phish frontman who has been touring under his own name during the Phish hiatus.”Live From Bonnaroo” shows how music gains strength from cross-breeding. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, long the quintessential modern New Orleans brass outfit, has been adopted by the jam fans, and collaborated frequently with Widespread Panic. On “Bonnaroo,” the Dirty Dozen’s version of “Ain’t Nothing But a Party” becomes a high-flying session, with an electric guitar lead getting as much attention as the more traditional sounds of brass. The North Mississippi Allstars throw a jam mentality into the Hill Country blues on “Sugartown” to refresh the blues, not unlike what Cream and the Allman Brothers Band did 35 years ago. String Cheese Incident’s “Search” combines bluegrass sounds with reggae beats, and the presence of percussionist Samson Olawale adds an African feel for an ear-capturing effect. And Jack Johnson’s acoustic strumming is complemented by the scratching of DJ Logic.Other highlights include Widespread, joined by gospel singer Dottie Peoples, doing “Tallboy,” the chorus of “Gonna summon the holy ghost from the battlefield” getting a boost from Peoples; Phil & Friends, joined by Lesh’s running partner Bob Weir, doing the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” for the Volunteer State crowd; and the Del McCoury Band singing the traditional “Rain & Snow,” a staple of the Dead repertoire for decades.”Live From Bonnaroo” also shows how the jam-band scene is becoming a black hole, drawing into it everything that ventures near. Making appearances on the set are gospel band The Blind Boys of Alabama, hip-hop act Jurassic 5, and sacred steel act Robert Randolph & the Family Band. Most any act that loves to perform live, is looking for a music-loving audience, and wants to opt out of the major-label game seems to be drawn to this scene. And somehow, all of it – the hard-rocking Gov’t Mule and moe., the groove jazz of Soulive, the easygoing Jack Johnson – all seems to fit comfortably under the jam umbrella.