As he accepted a J-shaped guitar trophy for something or other—the Jammy Awards are less about commendation than about resonant, intriguing, and sometimes merely absurd collaborative performances—Phish bassist Mike Gordon ticked off the defunct band’s three simple rules: Don’t piss off the sound guy, don’t analyze the show, don’t die. “We added a new one last year,” he said. “Don’t play.”
The amoeba-like subgenre the Jammys celebrate is less a sound than a set of strategies applied to an open-ended vocabulary, tweaked by whatever chemical reactions the musicians and audience stir up. The Jammys themselves began and ended with short sets that matched older and younger musicians for brief history lessons in blues, gospel, and reggae. (But where were the jazzbos?) Musical history seemed to implode, though, when the terrific “improg” rockers Umphrey’s McGee, fronted by Mavis Staples, slammed out “I’ll Take You There” with guest vocalists Huey Lewis and Sinéad O’Connor. Buddy Guy had already thrown down some blues science with that nice John Mayer, Roots drummer ?uestlove, and the shindig’s host, memoir-promoting Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. And the fathers-sons motif continued during a shaky late set that assembled the promising clusterskank of Medeski Martin & Wood, augmented by the Antibalas horns, as backing band for Burning Spear and newly converted reggae sistuh Sinéad—who was lightly booed not for ripping up Benedict XVI’s visage, alas, but for being kinda boring.
The middle of the four-and-a-half-hour evening was a fascinating crash course in just about everything glorious and cheesy about this mega-alternative music. The Disco Biscuits and Travis Tritt realized the down-home techno promise of the “countronica” sound Jon Langford prophesied several years ago, by sandwiching Tritt’s “Honky-Tonk History” into the Biscuits’ complexly spacey “House Dog Party Favor.” And speaking of country boys, closet Deadhead Ryan Adams tore shit up with a version of Dead evergreen “Wharf Rat” whose electric urgency even seemed to surprise the bass player, Phil Lesh. Even if there were more black people onstage than in the audience, the Jammys acquitted themselves once again as rock’s most democratic self-congratulatory free-for-all.