Jammed for All Time

The Improvisational Rock Scene Isn't Just for Hippies Anymore

Guitarist Al Schnier of moe. points to a live experience shared with fans as key: "It never happened before and it'll never happen again and everybody is there experiencing that one thing."

Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. "Some people are more comfortable going out on a limb in front of people," John Medeski admits. "It's scary. If you're really improvising, it's like dancing around naked and doing intimate things in front of somebody." It's the bands "just doing the same old jingle-jangle comfortable thing" that invite criticism. "That's the shit that's giving the more quality side of it a bad name," Medeski says.

The jamband audience is, in Medeski's words, "genuinely enthusiastic and warm and basically accepting, maybe to a fault." As a result, the scene has spawned a generation of wannabes whose priority is length over depth, and ignorant youths who look to Phish (as opposed to, say, Parliament-Funkadelic) as the impetus of psychedelic funk.

At its worst, the jamband world is too self-contained. First-time showgoers may have a hard time "getting" a group without background knowledge or a veteran guide, and not everyone wants to work that hard to enjoy a concert. Listeners can be lemming-like and undiscerning, and bad bands sometimes garner huge followings. At its best, though, the milieu is a wide-open haven for collaboration and a community for social appreciation.

The jam philosophy is frequently and rightly attributed to the Dead's model of genre-crossing, improvisation, and hard touring. However, it was the H.O.R.D.E. tour, created by Blues Traveler frontman John Popper and then manager Dave Frey in 1992, that first introduced a cohesive scene to the public.

The seven-year summer tour began as a practical means for a few too-tiny-for-amphitheater acts to escape stuffy clubs during the hot summer months. Gathering Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Phish, and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones—like-minded folk with similar improv-friendly fan bases—H.O.R.D.E. unknowingly provided a new subcultural blueprint.

As it expanded in its final years to include simply "good bands that play well live," it increasingly attracted less scene-identified performers: Sheryl Crow, Primus, Wilco, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins. "Would hanger-on hippies get bummed out by all the negative energy?" Entertainment Weekly asked. "Would purple-haired skate kids pelt peaceniks with Hacky Sacks?" Some believe the festival was ruined by its newfound inclusiveness. But if nothing else, that eclecticism established a wide and sturdy foundation for the blurred lines of today's scene.

"We got the H.O.R.D.E. gig and it was like, 'That's kinda like this hippie thing, isn't it?' " Primus bassist Les Claypool recalls. "In the back of our minds [we] were thinking, 'Wow, we might freak these people out.' And then we got there and they had the third stage going. I got to jam with all these people . . . Medeski [Martin & Wood] and the Morphine guys and Leftover Salmon. It was incredible."

Meanwhile, Phish held the first of four festivals in 1996 on air force tarmac in upstate New York, and by 1999 were single-handedly attracting over 80,000 fans to an Indian reservation in Florida for New Year's Eve. Smaller bands like the Big Wu, Strangefolk, moe., and the Disco Biscuits now coordinate their own successful self-indulgent shindigs, playing multiple sets on multiple days, and inviting people they want to meet, hear, and jam with, and sometimes luring over 5000 fans to sundry remote locations.

Forced to fend for themselves over the last decade, the bands behind these festivals are now the best example of DIY spirit since every '80s punk band started an independent label. Properly nurtured, they offer a world plagued with file-sharing witch hunts, outrageous ticket prices, and mergers the prototype for realistic alternatives to a Clear Channel-owned concert regime.

"Based on e-mail response . . . there's a lot of interest in jambands," says Jay Smith of the concert trade magazine Pollstar. Exhaustive touring, an increasing number of bands, and the impending end of Phish's two-year hiatus recently prompted the publication's online administrators to add a jam-specific link.

"The economics in the music industry aren't great to begin with," Relix magazine publisher and Wall Street executive Steve Bernstein reminds us. "The one thing that is doing well is these tours. Bands in the jamband scene make money on their touring. The fact that they're doing well proves something." Perhaps it proves that being considered commercially unsavory is the luckiest break a subculture can get.

"To an extent, the jamband scene is becoming sort of the anti-pop-culture scene for now," explains categorically elusive Claypool. With Primus he was labeled everything from thrash-funk to grunge, but having now formed the power trio Oysterhead with Trey Anastasio and the Police's Stewart Copeland, toured the jamband summer festival circuit, performed at both previous Jammys ceremonies, and beaten the Allman Brothers Band and Widespread Panic for Live Album of the Year in 2001, he just calls himself "the new guy on the scene."

"If you'd have asked me a couple years ago what did I think of the jamband scene, I would have just said, 'What is it, Phish and the Grateful Dead?' That's all I really knew. It seems like it's evolved quite a bit even since I've become involved. It seems like more of a hub than a scene at this point. It's more about your approach to your music than the style of music you play."

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