Bearfoot in the Head

So I'm checking out this band called moe., on Help Us Get High, a possibly unique, certainly handy compilation of live jam bands, distilled from ? hours of tape by truckin' experts, principally the Voice's own Richard Gehr (not the gerbil guy). It faithfully presents the rewards and faux pies of listening to oodles of noodles—100 years from today, it could stand as definitive (Smithsonian, better get workin').

The moe. track, "Buster," is the first and longest. It's about a kid who announces that he wants to be a bird and gets cautionary wisdom laid on him—a timeless tale, especially related to tribal heritage vs. the-need-to-explore-the-wilder-shores of Jam. Guitar takes over from voice, with some nice avid pecking, hopping, pausing for dramatic effect, changing to a poignantly wavering emulation of Jerry Garcia's voice, over enthusiastic "Ready for Takeoff!" drum-clearance. Then he does ascend, though sort of hugging himself—but confiding in us, bravely vulnerable. Drums and bass, sobered by this, provide steadying support; guitar takes heart, blasts forth—and lives, to brag and marvel on and on about it: "Whoohoo lookame Maw Ah'm uh Bird!!!" Very eventually, we get a big cornball climax, to wildly enthusiastic applause—"Yay, it's over!"? Alas, I fear not.

What has happened to the youth of today? I become unmoved by eager beavers overtaking a promising song with a teacher's-pet "sense" of dynamics. Lord, yes, Child, Mickey Hart sho'nuff did study a World of Drums, so such doofus displays are often traced to the Grateful Dead. However, consider their recent box set, So Many Roads: 1965-1995 (Gehr essay included, but not with the version somebody burned for me): five discs of mostly live, deceptively consistent excellence. Among other things, we get to track Garcia's relaxin' on the increasingly cozy snow-crusted axis between Miles Davis, Lou Reed, and sugarcubed Brian Wilson. Like them, Jerry's inner G. keeps his bandmates in (the) shape (of something) by inducing them to root around his space, whether he's ocupado or not. But mainly, Roads goes something like this: Once upona time, the Dead would ramble round, to setdown on your town, with their big vanguard-entrepreneurial coat-load of percussion and play what worked out best with just a toe-tappin' rhythm. And that was enough, that was fine.

Gov't Mule prepare to let the monster out to play.
photo: Danny Clinch
Gov't Mule prepare to let the monster out to play.


Help Us Get High
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Grateful Dead
So Many Roads: 1965-1995
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Hampton Comes Alive
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Gov't Mule
Live With a Little Help From Our Friends (box set version)
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Gov't Mule
Life Before Insanity
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At least when it came close enough to Overland Blues—something like official White Hillbilly Doc Watson doing a song by official Black Bluesman Mississippi John Hurt. Dancey, but too quirky to get stuck in the sweet-rut grooves so many jammers have always tried to make honey with. A charming but persistent sound, talkin' to you, Podner. So, G.D., wherever you are, pleeze roll another "Dark Star" toward all us ever-budding Web smokers. Still, "The real punch line is always: 'And then he died.' "—J. Garcia. But also, "One man gathers what another man spills." Don't Bogart that life, my friend, pass it over in the telling, the timing, the hearing, the cause and effect of the universe; where understanding wears through, you still have to follow. At best, you enter the song turning into itself, as the poet Al Young puts it. At worst? Well, if bum notes, cold feet, and sure shots still get more cheers than jeers, or even if they don't—long as that's the worst, why, you just lucky. That's all.

Maybe the Dead's rocking-chair paranoia tainted Phish, whose own five-CD Hampton Comes Alive is recommended only to those who don't mind spending a lotta money on something less than half good (though less than half is still almost a couple hours ' worth). But when isolation (behind sub-Teletubby wit, jam-smeared ornamental shrubbery, and hothouse pop) becomes their TeeHeads-strung-out-on-Steely subject, they testify: "Split Open and Melt" got me by sending out a glittery, greedy spider-piano to really spin that yarn. Something about a dusty, gray-brown recluse of a guitar solo, almost swept out the door by its dogged determination to ride the keyboard-dictated changes, while weaving a new motto: "Clumsy Is Real, Man!" So it's not necessarily a question of "Jam or Pop?" re true Phish nature, as a growing minority debates. Each approach just needs to push the other better.

Nevertheless, Phish, the Dead, and many lesser heads do tend to disappear up their own butts. The subterranean wilderness patrolled by Gov't Mule often seems more roomy, and eventful, too. Sure, you might be creeped out sometimes, perhaps by the Leslie-amped(organ-sounding) guitars trickling medication into "Thorazine Shuffle" on 1998's Dose, or by the New Year's Eve "yeee-haaa!"s in the version on Live With a Little Help From Our Friends, when lead Mule Warren Haynes (almost shyly) announces, "It's time to let the monster out to play." "No Need to Suffer" 's narrator may be Savior, Satan, and/or driven to madness (certainly to metal), by empathy with an actual woman, I think (so maybe it's not exactly metal—but a true power ballad nonetheless). There's also a "Towering Fool," whose winding stare the singer nails with every steadily climbing note. Haynes seems to know these people very well, but they aren't just projections: too many mirror-busting details.

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