No two jam bands are exactly alike’ and the jam band umbrella, not unlike that of the one open over genres such as progressive or indie is about as wide as they come. There are the flagship bands: the Grateful Dead, Phish, and scores of others that popped up along the way. Many of these bands, including Georgia’s Widespread Panic, have been around longer than you think and a few, albeit ones at the fringes (Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler), have had major chart success, though most have not. There are ties to bluegrass and jazz, constant displays of virtuosity and improvisation, and drugs.
Peter Conners, author of Growing Up Dead, skillfully assembles this oral history, gathering key players and fans alike. The critics are not a presence. They don’t need to be. They’re often not particularly kind to these bands, using terms such as “noodling” and “amorphous” to describe extended improvisations that are often thoughtful, mostly well structured, and, on a good night, as capable of inspiring human levitation as anything Miles or Coltrane whipped out.
Conners addresses those who offer up adjectives such as “noodling” to describe the music (or elements of it anyway) and throw about the word “hippie” to describe both the musicians and the fans. These are, he writes, “lazy signifiers” that are often “tossed up to fill in the vacuum of word-count deadlines”, in the same way that, one might argue, the designation of some ‘80s hard rock and heavy metal bands as “hair metal” bands is ultimately pointless when hair is not something you can hear on a record. (Well, not usually.)
Jam bands are then, he writes, those that emphasize live performance over studio output, who rely on a grassroots following, and who are, like bluegrass musicians, virtuosic. In some ways one could argue that an artist such as Frank Zappa would fit this mold but Zappa’s music, despite its influence on bands such as Phish, was less reliant on improvisation than the music of the Grateful Dead and although he had a loyal following it wasn’t quite grassroots in the way that the String Cheese Incident understands a grassroots following.
There are early reminiscences about New York City in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with venues such as Wetlands Preserve and The Nightingale. Blues Traveler was an important band on that circuit as was, lest we forget, Spin Doctors. The former was especially instrumental in starting the H.O.R.D.E. festival which brought together a diverse range of bands (Dave Matthews and the Black Crowes took part as did King Crimson) and became a template for later jam-rooted festivals such as Bonaroo and the various fests associated with individual acts. (Gonna be in a jam band? You better learn how to organize a festival. And quick.)
That’s detailed in these pages as are discussions about the jam label itself (that chapter is titled “Call Me Whatever You Want, Just Call Me”), the jam touring circuit, and the long and sometimes slow climb toward building a fan base. There are long discussions about the nature of improvisation and, of course, the preservation of these many shows thanks to tapers and traders. (We even get to read Phish’s very funny taping policy and contemplate the major role that these fans have had in preserving a given band’s best shows but also pop history.)
Fans get in on the action in what serves as a kind of epilogue, espousing their ideas about what “jam band” means, but it’s not the best moment of the book. True, a movement/genre that is reliant on the connection with the fans should allow those voices to be heard, it just seems, more than anything, tagged on.
Some of the spoken passages from band members can get a bit unwieldy at times and you have to flip between the speaker’s name and the Contributor Notes if you don’t know the difference between String Cheese and Disco Biscuits. Leftover Salmon is not a presence but Umphrey’s McGhee (thank you) is.
It seems a listening list might have helped, but fans of this music find their own way to what’s best and newcomers will have to trust those who have come before. And frankly, it’s at times refreshing not to have wade through a list of album titles and moods and attitudes that bands tried (and perhaps often failed) to evoke on said recordings.
All in all, this is an entertaining read that’s thoughtfully assembled and inviting in its casualness.