In Defense of Jam Bands
Katie BainThey're having way too much fun to care what you think of this situation
[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]
On a warm August night in 2011, roughly 18,000 Angelenos converged on the Hollywood Bowl, to partake in the swirl of cosmic hedonism and guitar noodling that is a Phish show.
L.A. concert culture can be unusual -- sometimes clique-ish and often rife with a general unwillingness or inability to break the cool barrier and really get down. On that night though, there were no pretensions or hang-ups. There were no eastsiders or westsiders, no execs or assistants, no well-dressed or dumpy. No one who wondered aloud: "Can an intelligent person like Phish?"
There was only the feeling of frenzied joy, created by the band everyone loves to make fun of, Phish. In the parking lot across the street, happy phans lounged on the grass drinking beer, smoking bowls and trading stories of the far flung places around the globe they'd seen the band. (The dude who chased them to Japan was the clear winner.) Walking into the Bowl, a pretty older woman who looked like a college art professor pulled a sack of cookies out of her tote bag and handed me two. "These are special," she said with a wink. "Happy Phish day."
Inside, it was a celebration. We all fell into a reverent hush when Jon Fishman sang "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover." Between sets, the bearded dude sitting next to me gave me half of his ham sandwich and a pull from his flask. From the boxes to the bleachers, people danced. The light show was dazzling. And not just because the cookies were special.
Still, jam bands are pretty much the punching bag of the music industry. Which is maybe not hard to understand considering its denizens' predilections for dreadlocks, tie dye, hula-hoops and barefootedness. But let's not confuse free-spiritedness with stupidity.
Jam band culture is rooted in the tradition of exercising one's basic urges through an ecstatic musical experience, whether through taking drugs and playing with devil sticks or doing that particular kind of twirl dancing seen almost exclusively at jam shows. Scoff all you want, but isn't there a certain bravery to doing the things that make you feel good regardless of -- make that, especially if -- people think you look like an idiot while doing it?
And you can bet that Phish heads, Deadheads, and Panic people cavorting in parking lots and grassy fields do not care what you think. And that's heroic. And sometimes revelatory.
Due to a deep-seeded fear of looking like a moron, I used to not dance in public at all. This habit began the night I fell on the ground at a middle school dance after slipping on the toilet paper stuck to my shoe and lasted until the first time I saw Widespread Panic. After standing in that field for the first few songs, suppressing the urge to flail my limbs around, I looked at the scene happening around me and realized two things: That everyone dancing was way too focused on the fun they were having to judge the quality of my moves, and that I wanted in.
Now, when I go to shows, I dance. Sometimes I twirl around. Maybe people think I look silly, and maybe I do. What I realized that night was that neither of those things actually matter.
Another critique is that jam bands actually sound terrible, which is sometimes fair. Trey Anastasio's voice is no great gem and Phish's harmonies often sound like a group of hungry cats. Widespread Panic fares bit better, what with John Bell's southern warble. Big Gigantic and My Morning Jacket are clearly rad, and moe. definitely sounds excellent when there is a enough Sour Diesel involved. What most people who hate jam bands hate most, however, is, of course, the jamming, the excessive soloing and 45 minute versions of songs that last four minutes on an album.
Sure it can all be a bit indulgent, but what's undeniable is the level of musicianship displayed by guys -- often really old guys -- who can improvise a prolonged guitar jam off the top of their heads and thrill a sea of people. Not knowing where the sound is going to go is the essence of this music, which is all about the live experience. It makes for constant creative expansion, and fuels each group's mythology. Which a lot more rock and roll than the "tight" 45 minute set your favorite indie rock band played at the Echo last month.
Genre prophet Jerry Garcia probably put it best when he said: "We're like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice." People who appreciate Phish, the Dead, moe., Bob Weir and Ratdog, Widespread Panic, Phil Lesh and Friends, String Cheese Incident, Medeski Martin and Wood, Motet, EOTO and the like typically do so without sarcasm and without restraint. These people fucking love licorice.
And, as easy as it is to mock them, actually attending one of these shows can be game changer. When you're in the thick of the crowd and Panic is hitting the climax on "All Time Low," and the air is rich with the smell of weed smoke and you're being hypnotized by the lights, it's an undeniable feeling. And even for you jaded motherjumpers: aren't good vibes ultimately what a top notch musical experience is all about?
Then of course there are the drugs. It's weird to mock jam band fans for liking drugs because, outside of straight-edge punk, lovers of nearly every genre take drugs. But if you're going to go there, admit that the LSD and other psychedelics favored by Phish fans can actually open the mind up in productive, creative and cathartic ways. Or sometimes you just end in a deserted parking ramp alone and off your face on nitrous after a Panic show (like a friend of mine once did) and decide that a lifestyle change is in order. Hey, at least it's not meth.
Ultimately, jam band land is not really that cool. It's not trying to be. Rather, it is a happily weird world where extended drum solos can make grown men, (and hippie chicks toting small children), weep tears of joy. Obviously it's not for everyone, but outsiders who find themselves at one of these events are likely to feel the warm (and slightly sweaty) embrace of this worldwide tribe. If you don't believe us, ask the Boss. After all, you know who looked happiest when Bruce Springsteen jammed on "Glory Days" with Phish at Bonnaroo 2009? Bruce Springsteen.
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