Salmon, String Cheese, and Jam


No offense, but “jamband” isn’t really a legitimate label. It’s not even a style—more like an adjective that indicates a group’s propensity to stretch out and explore within the structure of a song. It won’t describe what a band sounds like so much as it’ll tell you how their audience looks (and sometimes smells). For every genre, there’s a jamband out there: jazz, electronica, hip-hop, country, funk, bluegrass.

As recent rock history traces them, though, all jamband roads lead back to the Grateful Dead. That may not be the ultimate origin: Think of Clapton, or any jazz artist worth listening to. But culturally and musically, the Dead mark the prism point where what is now “the scene” shot off in infinite directions. So it’s only natural that the modern phenomenon of the bluegrass-jamband hybrid should be considered a direct descendant of Jerry Garcia.

Garcia’s bluegrass legacy spans from pre-Dead days (is that phrasing in poor taste?) in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions to the posthumous recent release of The Pizza Tapes, a collaboration with mandolinist David Grisman and guitarist Tony Rice. As the story goes, the tape was stolen from Garcia’s home around 1993 by a pizza deliveryman only to make the rounds as a popular, unmixed bootleg. Garcia and Grisman’s just-for-fun offshoots go further back, though—to the ’70s and the unique collective Old & in the Way.

Bands like the String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon have managed to turn Jerry’s dual love into a sustainable sub-scene. Let’s call it jamgrass—not to be confused with similarly nonsensical terms like newgrass, progressive bluegrass, spacegrass, or even groovegrass (which Bootsy Collins swiped before my genius ass could come up with it). As for the catchy self-description “polyethnic cajun slamgrass,” you’d have to hear Leftover Salmon to find out if such a sound can exist.

Formed in the hotbed of Colorado (Telluride hosts one of the best bluegrass festivals in the country) and attracting an ever growing, die-hard audience, Salmon straddle the line, only to wander way off course whenever they please. (Live renditions of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” may be the most extreme example.) Their latest studio effort, The Nashville Sessions (Hollywood), leans more toward grass than jam, roping in guests from both worlds and more (Earl Scruggs, Del and Ronnie McCoury, Lucinda Williams, Widespread Panic’s John Bell), yet winding down to no-nonsense old-timey interpretations.

Fellow Coloradans String Cheese Incident demonstrate, on the other hand, that jamgrass doesn’t need authentic heavyweights to validate itself. To look at their style—trippy cover art, tee-and-sandals-clad band members and fans, elaborately designed mail-order ticket stubs—SCI could pass for any other hippie gig. But slide in their live Carnival ’99 (Sci Fidelity) with that attitude, and you’ll be knocked down immediately, with the old warhorse “Shenandoah Breakdown.” Later on, the band even busts out the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way.” The set shifts beautifully between pluckin’ and noodlin’. Still, for nonfans, two discs may prove too much.

As an improvisatory music you can dance to, bluegrass is naturally attractive to jam-fan ears. But even heads who don’t dig it have a hard time avoiding it. Phish have been known to cover and collaborate with Del McCoury and Bela Fleck; moe. strum mandolins and share stages with Leftover Salmon and Bela. It’s no surprise that Bela has attracted a hippie following; he’s worked with String Cheese and Salmon, opened for the Dead, played with Grisman. He’s blurred the lines between traditional and progressive bluegrass, bluegrass and rock, the Allmans and late Miles. He uses the banjo not just for folkloric purposes, but as a jazz and rock instrument. And as a result, he’s become the jam nation’s most accessible cohort.

The year 1999 found Bela returning to trad grass roots, gathering up the greats—Scruggs, Rice, Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan—for The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet Volume 2 (Warner Bros.). A year later, though, he’s back with the Flecktones. The difference between his band and solo Bela has always been vast, but the group’s latest, Outbound (Sony), somehow borrows and veers away from both extremes.

Like his 1994 first installment of Tales From the Acoustic Planet (which enlisted Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis along with the usual suspects), Outbound features unexpected cameos: Adrian Belew, John Medeski, Shawn Colvin, Jon Anderson. Unlike in the solo stuff, bluegrass isn’t the focus, merely one of many ingredients dumped into a stew that also mixes in bass-funk, electric drum simulation (via Flecktone Future Man’s invention, the synth-ax drumitar), jazz sax, Middle Eastern flavors, and rock climaxes. The album moves away from the typically instrumental Flecktones sound, though, in one big way: vocals on half the tracks. Grunts to scats to full-on verse-chorus lyrics, but as in previous Flecktones experiments, they pull it off; the most heavily vocaled tune, “A Moment So Close,” is also the highlight of the album.

In the words of another banjo maestro turned infinite jammer, the Rev. Jeff Mosier (a founding member of Col. Bruce Hampton’s multigenre Southern conglomerate the Aquarium Rescue Unit who has since played with Salmon and Panic, served as Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s banjo tutor, and now leads the Georgia-based Blueground Undergrass): “It feels like archaeology, this diggin’ up the past/Unearth another part of me/Things I never thought would last, they last.” Jerry Garcia might say the same if he could see what a big deal his semiprivate passion has become. On A Tribute to Jerry Garcia (Orchard), Jonathan McEuen and Phil Salazar even have a swell time funneling songs spanning Jerry’s career through a bluegrass filter. In a way, it’s the same thing all jamgrass bands do. Some just aren’t as subtle as others.