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.

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Help Us Get High
Shanachie
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Grateful Dead
So Many Roads: 1965-1995
Arista
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Phish
Hampton Comes Alive
Elektra/Asylum
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Gov't Mule
Live With a Little Help From Our Friends (box set version)
Capricorn
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Gov't Mule
Life Before Insanity
Capricorn
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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.

Though he deals in decisive-sounding direct address, former David Allen a-Coe-not-so-lyte (and accompanist) Haynes keeps obsessively reapproaching his subjects, shielded at times by jaggedly juxtaposed time signatures, those Thorazine tricklers, and/or tilting lanterns of vocal implication (a bit like Korn's Jonathan Davis—or Fiona Apple). Even in the leadfooted moments (worth the weight for the best songs on GM's latest, Life Before Insanity), the earth's rumbling hungrily, shifting under him. (Volcano vs. Plate theory? The battle continues!) Maybe everything's a jam. Warren's life sure is.

What really makes all this work is the way Matt Abts's drums and the bass of Allen Woody (not the guy who married his daughter) rattle Warren's ax past (or, if necessary, through) the Solemn Bog of Eternalist Solos. On the recently expanded edition of Live, P-Funk keyboarder Bernie Worrell helps them shift the dancing-in-yo'-face "Mule" theme overland toward Maggot Brain-era Dee-troit (old Murder City). Bernie and young Derek Trucks are mission-accomplices, provoking Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues" to preach in slide-guitar tongues, midway through the Nevilles' French Quarter (new Murder City). It's the kind of work-release that makes the Dead's sporty skeleton mascot look a tad scrawny.

The Mules sometimes submit their smoldering Cream-Hendrix-Allmans-Monk-Sabbath bulk to a Free-Bad Co.-style restraining order. Yet how often they then gamble on stretching out of one sense of grace, into the higher! It doesn't always work. But "Cortez the Killer" 's generations fall like rain past "Sad and Blue as You," which lives in a tear that never falls. Johnny Neel's Hammond B-3 organ sprinkles Insanity's "Fallen Down" with impervious-to-the-agony whiskeynotes. And Dose's cover of Blind Willie Johnson's "John the Revelator" ends, not with judgement-rock thunder . . .just Warren's banjo hopping along past guitar moans, quietly asking, "What's next? What's next?"

Meanwhile, back at Help Us Get High, Jiggle the Handle (!?) jump right past moe.'s buildup/setup, and their cornball climax, yet retain some of the reedy Garcia-tone moe. used, vulnerability right in the midst of a bull's-eye. Boud Deun's "Lincoln" sets us free to find a new illusion with a tight, warm, fully packed electric violin, which Ominous Seapods should try to measure (up to), judging by their preeny tourist-bait "Jet Smooth Ride' (ditto art-wankers Hosemobile). Schleigo's got the (ever-) new illusion: wheelin' 'round with your Baby, in winter Sunday sunlight (Cadillac'd by keyboard). Touchingly titled "Biscuits" (in the oven?).

Grand Pillsbury Bake-off finale: "Lil' Betty Boop's been thinkin it ohvaah," and think it through with her if you dare, while Disco Biscuits are chasing this American Beeootay around something like Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with a Phantom of the Operaorgan, decadent disco hi-hats bouncing on each other, and guitars playing those spermatozoon wraiths swooping around Betty in Cab Calloway's 1930s cartoon of "Minnie the Moocher." Holy Smokes, even if she was a low-down hoochie-coocher, Biscuits jam the hard way in the direction of "There's No Place Like Home," and I don't mean like Toto, Dorothy. All 'cause barefootin' Betty kicked that gong around? But you kick it too, guys (compliment)!

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