Will Jam 4 Food 

Improvising an alternative music scene

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
Illustration by
Geoffrey Grahn

WHAT DO THE BLACK CROWES, BLUES TRAVELER, BELA FLECK AND the Flecktones, the Jazz Mandolin Project, Poi Dog Pondering, the Allman Brothers, Rusted Root and DJ Logic have in common? They're all listed on the links page of Jambands.com. This, and the presence of hundreds of other disparate bands on the Jambands site, raises the question: "What constitutes a jamband?" Regardless of whether you even care about the answer, there are important lessons about community, work ethics, DIY and, to be sure, making money to be learned from the exploding jamband scene. "Exploding?" you say. "It's not on my VH1, MTV, KROQ." It's true, most of these bands' songs hover below the playlist radar of the national corporate clear-channel radio chain. How, then, could jambands be mistaken for anything blowin' up?

Anyone who has long followed popular music knows that in music, as in physics, for every action there's some crazy mofo in a basement somewhere concocting an equal reaction. Thing is, that reaction would traditionally bubble up on college radio, on indie labels and in local scenes until it made enough of a noise for major-label bloodhounds to come sniffing, at which point VH1, MTV, etc., etc. In the jamband scene, musicians and their business partners have no patience for this, and have forged a business model that creates financial self-sufficiency and prosperity right here and now.

Self-financed and self-released recordings and often-grueling live-performance schedules are key to these artists' income, but as we all know, you gotta get an audience in the room first. With no radio or TV and practically no mainstream press support, jambands are reaching thousands of fans via old-fashioned word of mouth, but much more so with tape-trading communities and brilliantly run Web sites. Add to this an ever-growing audience that's not being attended to by the mainstream media, and the underground jamband community can thrive on its own, outside traditional means.

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So how do the bands listed above fit together in the jamband universe? Most in the scene agree the crucial factor is the artists' willingness to walk the high wire and improvise.

"Above all else, the one defining factor is that a band is committed to improvisation in the live setting," says Dan Budnick, editor in chief and founder of Jambands.com. "Beyond that, it's pretty open-ended. When we began the site, my idea was to use it to proselytize, to help get the word out about this emerging scene. These bands are sort of cross-realm: They weren't quite funk bands, they weren't quite jazz bands, they weren't quite folk, Latin or rock. They were this new amalgam of musical styles that was emerging and had a very young audience." Budnick, 35, did his share of "Dead Tour" back when that was still possible, and his fanhood drove him to write The Phishing Manual, a book about Phish, the band that filled the void left when Jerry Garcia departed for that great jam session in the sky. The book Jambands followed, and along with some volunteers, Budnick launched Jambands.com three years ago.

The theory that the jamband phenom was born out of the demise of the Dead and the semiretirement of Phish works for some, but Budnick emphasizes that the scene is largely made up of kids too young to have seen these bands. That may be, but many jamband kids seem to adhere to the Deadhead philosophy: If one Dead show is great, think how amazing it would be to see the whole tour!

"People want to go to see multiple shows," claims Lee Seelig, who manages and books Addison Groove Project, OM Trio and other bands at the Boulder, Colorado­based Good Time Entertainment. "The bands usually have pretty large repertoires, and they can play a different set list for a couple of nights without repeating songs. Each song will sound different; the solos are in different places." According to Budnick, artists show their "reciprocal commitment by allowing taping." In fact, if the Stonesy rock of the dearly departed Black Crowes seems out of place on the list, consider that the band has steadfastly insisted on allowing unhindered taping at all of its shows.

Indeed, artists seem bound to the jamband scene by virtue of the community of fans more so than by musical similarities. Take solo acoustic artist Howie Day, who neither jams nor is a band. Nonetheless, jamsters trade recordings of his performances with the same zeal reserved for Dave Matthews. According to Day's manager, Boston-based Shawn Radley, "Tape trading is a huge aspect of it. The improvisation is where Howie thinks it's weird that he gets lumped in with these bands. Occasionally he'll improvise and go off with his loop sampler, but basically he writes four-minute pop songs. There's a tape-trading site dedicated to Howie that's been up since January of this year that has 1,000 registered users."

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