Jammed for All Time

The Improvisational Rock Scene Isn't Just for Hippies Anymore

Radio and television insist the songs don't fit their formats. Record companies cringe at the sales figures. Music magazines dis- miss the bands as go-nowhere noodlers and the fans as drugged-up dreadies. But as it turns out, so-called jambands, a gaggle of related giggers not typically labeled as such, and the loyal audience that lumps them together collectively form the most pervasive underground movement in music today. On October 2, approximately 3000 jam fans and 50 musicians (most of whom wear on their figurative chests that scarlet J) will gather at Roseland Ballroom for the third annual Jammys—an awards show that, according to the event's executive producer Peter Shapiro, celebrates "excellence in improvisational music." Or, as he proffers even more vaguely with a knowing chuckle, "It's an awards show for a genre you can't define."

Says bassist Marc Brownstein of self-described trance-fusion quartet the Disco Biscuits. "I don't mind that people call [us] a jamband so much anymore. We are a band, and boy do we jam. But the term doesn't tell even half of the story."

The folks behind Bonnaroo say ditto. This three-day music and camping event held last June in Tennessee was not only the most high-profile multi-band concert the jamband scene has ever staged, it was the largest American music festival of the summer. It was the best coordinated as well, suffering no major incidents while packing more than 70,000 attendees, more than 50 bands, four stages, a movie tent, an arcade, and other diversions onto about 600 acres of farmland. Three months earlier, 60,000 tickets (available via Internet only, without Ticketmaster's involvement) had sold out in only 19 days. Both stunned and thrilled by the response, promoters Superfly Presents and A.C. Entertainment scrambled to acquire additional land. On May 18 they released 10,000 more tickets, sold out within 24 hours, then capped it. It's impossible to guess how big Bonnaroo could have been.

Organizers soon found that they had less control over the event's image. Carefully positioning the festival as "American grassroots rock," they emphasized the diversity of the lineup, which also included moe., Gov't Mule, String Cheese Incident, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ween, Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Jurassic 5, and a bevy of DJs. Reporters took one look at the crowd, noted Widespread Panic and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio's solo band as the headliners, and all event coverage defaulted to "jamband."

"The word actually has so many different meanings when you really dig into it," explains Bonnaroo publicist Ken Weinstein, "but most people don't dig into it. It just has a very flat, one-dimensional connotation."

"Jam band" began as a simple jazz phrase describing musicians who got together to improvise, free from the rules of everyday gigs. Today it refers to about 200 artists. Many are acutely aware of a bizarre backlash against the term and—like every emo and hair metal and teenpop act that ever resented its "File Under" destiny—some have been reluctant to cop to it. "Please write about us in Relix and on Jambands.com, and please have us on your radio show Jam Nation," mocks Jambands.com writer Jeff Waful. "But don't call us a jamband.'"

Ranging from consistently high-grossing, arena-sized tour stars to up-and-coming local unknowns, jambands share something, but it's not a sound. They're a stylistically disparate bunch, rooted in bluegrass, blues, rock, jazz, techno, country, and funk, but all connected by an invisible, indefinite thread. Online community, open taping policies, intricate light shows, long songs, varied set lists, constant tour schedules? Some of the above, usually.

At this year's Jammys, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix are up against Phish and the Grateful Dead for Archival Album of the Year. Pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph and electro-funk quartet Particle are vying for the New Groove award. Widespread Panic is nominated in five of eight categories—competing with turntablist DJ Logic for Live Performance, New Orleans funk outfit Galactic and the Triple Threat DJs for Tour of the Year, jazz-fusion trio Medeski Martin & Wood for Studio Album of the Year, bluegrassy Leftover Salmon for Live Album, and pre-scene veteran Phil Lesh for Fan Web Site.

On the one hand, the Jammys originated to acknowledge music that mainstream award-granting bodies tend to neglect. While Phish did have the privilege of losing two Grammys in 2001—Best Boxed Recording Package prize (an honor if ever there was one) and Best Rock Instrumental—they won big in Jamland that year. Nominated in six areas, they earned bowl-shaped Jammy trophies for Live Performance of the Year and Studio Album of the Year.

On the other hand, Shapiro confesses that he and co-founder Dean Budnick really hatched the Jammys idea as "an excuse to throw a party." Other awards shows always include a few musical highlights between red-carpet commentary, backstage visits, audience pans, and acceptance speeches. The Jammys throw in a few awards between performances.

Although the lineup for the 2002 concert reads almost as predictably as the award nominees—moe., Gov't Mule, Robert Randolph—pairings like Rusted Root with DJ Logic and Scratch from the Roots, Particle with the B-52's, and house band Dirty Dozen Brass Band with the Tom Tom Club promise something different. Whether the result is lame or legendary will be determined onstage. "The best way to illustrate the power of live music is to do something that's of the moment, that forces musicians to play raw and not something rehearsed," Shapiro says. "And the best way to do that is to put them on stage with another musician that they've never met before."

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