Well, that's just, like, your OPINION, man.
April 26, 2007 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Help me appreciate the artistic talents of jam bands.

I am on a crusade to try to find merit in jam bands like the Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident, etc. I've always more or less out of habit derided this brand of music as noodling, and this is unfair.

(In my defense, the cultural baggage of the Dead and Phish, in particular, contributed to this opinion: you can only take so many repetitions of "dude, they're awesome musicians" from someone so baked they're practically a strudel before you start getting a little tetchy.)

So, I want to find merit in these bands. On the other hand, I really don't have the free time or the exhaustion threshold to trawl through the entire catalog of various jam bands looking for diamonds (plus, I'd like to not hate this genre), and I'm more or less certain that there are authorities who read AskMe. So hope me, lazyweb!

What are the moments of artistic glory that best represent the musicianship of these bands? Video/audio is preferred, of course, but even more awesome would be video or audio with a jonmc-style explanation of what makes the particular moment(s) you're highlighting notable.
posted by scrump to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
For me, it took a lot of listening and attending live shows of the same music to understand what the draw is for a lot of the people you'll meet that seem to be into it. In the end, I think it's mostly that each night (since everything is primarily based around the live shows) truly has its own flavor, feeling, and personality, and that this is perhaps a modern version of being able to appreciate the different versions of Bach's various Passions - the slow Klemperer Matthew vs. the more upbeat Karajan.

Listen to a Deep Banana Blackout live show some time - hear them having fun with the crowd, how the whole band is getting into it, and so on. Try an Umphrey's McGee "Front Porch" while you're sitting around having a beer and a smoke with some friends.

I think some of the prototypical jam music really just exemplifies chilling out, relaxing, laid-back college-age emotions just as other types of music will evoke other basic types of feelings. You don't have to like it any more than you like or identify with country music. :)
posted by kcm at 10:58 AM on April 26, 2007

I'd suggest buying a book or two on jazz appreciation, as many of the same factors are at work (improvisation, impresario playing ability, loooooong songs, emphasis on live vs. studio, etc.). If you can learn how to dig a Davis/Coltrane live recording, it's gonna be really easy to get into a live Dead recording and find the good stuff.
posted by jbickers at 10:59 AM on April 26, 2007

What kind of music do you enjoy now? If you like guitar rock, Widespread Panic is, I'm told, more rockin' than the average jam band. If you like jazz, try Medeski, Martin and Wood. I hope that other people who know more about jam bands than I do will have more advice along these lines.
posted by box at 11:00 AM on April 26, 2007

Response by poster: By way of background, my listening tastes are eclectic, but I primarily listen to jazz (hard bop, Coltrane era), modern composers (Gorecki, Kronos Quartet) and, er, a lot of pop and hair metal.

I'm a musician by training and avocation (a bassist), and tend to appreciate things that display both a sense of musical history, technical skill, and melodic sense: I love little musical in-jokes like Brubeck's (Warning: RealAudio) quoting of "Wild Blue Yonder" after a passing plane obscured part of his set at Monterey.
posted by scrump at 11:06 AM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: Oh boy. This is going to be a very tough thread. Some folks will tell you there’s nothing to appreciate; others will tell you you need to be on acid in order to appreciate them, still others will tell you “dude… they’re awesome… there’s this one part where the drummer plays a VACUUM CLEANER!”

I think it helps to know a little bit about musical theory (I know very little myself) in order to appreciate just what they’re doing. To see a band like Phish or Bela Fleck and The Flecktones jam for twenty minutes, making seamless transitions, it’s amazing. It can look as if they’re reading each other’s minds.

I know what you mean about Phish and The Dead. I stopped going to see Phish live because I couldn’t stand the throngs of jobless, veggie-burrito selling lowlifes looking for “a miracle” and complaining about “The Man” because they saw a cop in the parking lot.

I’m in the minority in that I love Phish (up until about Billy Breathes, at least) but I prefer the studio albums to the live stuff. Check out Rift, disc one of Junta, and Billy Breathes. Others will tell you I’m high and you should check out their bootleg of that one time…”

One band that weren’t originally a jam band but sort of evolved into one is Primus. I never appreciated Larry LeLonde’s guitar playing until I got the Hallucino-Genetics DVD, but damn that boy can play.

Some of Les Claypool’s side projects are also worth checking out, particularly Les Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. Oysterhead, featuring Les, Trey from Phish, and Stewart Copland, is surprisingly disappointing.

Bela Fleck and The Flecktones are pretty accessible for that genre, though they’re also a bit different from the typical jam band. I don’t think I’ve ever seen four more talented musicians on stage at once. (And I’ve seen Poison!)
posted by bondcliff at 11:12 AM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: If you're curious about the Grateful Dead, you should be listening to their live shows as they're far more popular than their studio recordings. I do not purport to be an expert but many people find their show on May 8th, 1977 at Cornell to be one of their favorites. You can listen to the whole show in streaming fomat here.

The Dead are a classic institution whereas, in my opinion, many of these other bands won't have the staying power. Also, if you can't get your head into the dead then you'll probably have more difficulty with the others, so I'd start there. My 2 cents...
posted by garethspor at 11:15 AM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of bands that have musical talent that are awful to listen to, the best examples of these are Rush and Dream Theatre. Technical competency does not necessarily mean good music.
posted by electroboy at 11:50 AM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: I always loved the Dead and Phish for the obvious sense of community both bands had--not only among the band members, but also between the bands and their fans. I do think both bands were filled with excellent musicians, including both bass players, Phil Lesh and Mike Gordon. I think both bands are perfect illustrations of the phenomenon of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Phish was way into musical in-jokes and die-hard fans can always point out the teases of one song that appear in the jams of another. My first introduction to Phish was a live record they put out called "Slip, Stitch, and Pass" from a 1997 or 1998 show in Germany. It has several good in-jokes, one of which is the outro to "Weekapaug Groove" being a quote of the Rolling Stones' jam out of "Can't you Hear me Knockin'". I think that record is a good introduction to Phish. That version of "Mike's Song" will always be my favorite. There is about a five minute part that kicks in right after the vocals and starts the jam that is just incredibly funky and fun and kinetic and wonderful that, to me, is the essence of live music, just about my favorite five minutes of music ever. That they stumbled upon it live is so amazing to me (an utter nonmusician). That is why I like Phish and the Dead--as they improvise, they hit upon moments of pure bliss and I don't think there is any other way musically to do that. I suspect you know what I'm talking about cause Coltrane does it, too. I think Phish' studio albums are underappreciated but it is true that they were at their best when they played live. Any Phish fan could point you to a show that had moments that, for them, were transporting and sublime. I'm sure there are fans who would tell me there are five better versions of "Mike's Song" out there and that is one of the other things I love about them--that each version of "Mike's Song" is different and that my Phish is not your Phish but that Phish is big enough to encompass us both.

I think a good introduction to the Dead is Dick's Picks #3, (a show from 1977) especially the last 45 minutes or so of disc 2. If you appreciate bass playing, I think you will like Lesh' playing on "Eyes of the World" and the whole movement from "Estimated Prophet" through "Morning Dew" is just incredibly soulful, powerful and moving. I think it highlights the Dead's ability to play many different kinds of music and to play a pure kind of American music that speaks across time and distance. That version of "Wharf Rat" could have been recorded 50 years ago or yesterday.

Enough rambling. I think with both bands there are times when what you hear is just some endless noodling and not every night was magical, but when they hit on all cylinders they hit peaks rarely reached.
posted by pasici at 11:50 AM on April 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think it helps to know a little bit about musical theory (I know very little myself) in order to appreciate just what they’re doing.

Amen to that, but in my experience, it helps if you *only* know a little bit about music theory to appreciate the Grateful Dead. Practically to a person, every serious Dead-Head I've ever met has been a musical hobbyist. Someone who can bang out a few chords on a guitar, but really isn't very good. This didn't occur to me until I saw this question, but I can list more than 25 people that fit this description perfectly: all of the hardcore deadheads.

That said, as others have pointed out, I don't think "Jam Band" exists as a standalone genre. The Dead, for example, is pretty solidly in the (lite) R&B idiom. It's entirely possible that you might not like them because you just don't like the songwriting medium that they explore.

As for alternatives, I might suggest the Allman Bros (who are long past being a band, but are a blues-rock ensemble who tour with a bevy of excellent guest guitarists), the Tragically Hip, Widespread Panic, Television (angular shards of finely tuned post punk), Primus.

If you want to expand your search to bands who are defunct, but may got your juices flowing for the sheer artistry from the long ago recordings, I would recommend Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Hot Tuna, early Jefferson Airplane, (non-pop) Cream, and the live Jimi Hendrix catalogue.
posted by psmealey at 11:50 AM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am not a big jam band fan, but some Phish and Dead tunes really appeal to me, and, like bondcliff, I prefer the studio recordings to the live stuff. I remember the first time I ever heard Phish, back in 1992 - I heard some tracks from "Picture of Nectar" on the radio, and I was captivated.
posted by candyland at 11:58 AM on April 26, 2007

Learn to play a little bit of guitar. Since I started playing a few years back, I appreciate just how complex and difficult playing those licks can be, especially on the fly. If you've never tried it yourself, you kind of take it for granted, I think.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:01 PM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: A way to really like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is to listen to their CD's.

A way to LOVE them is to see them perform live, but in a structured manner.

A way to completely get over them is to watch them perform live, on one of the nights Bela wants to take you on an existential voyage of the soul to the outer realms of the Flecky nebula. (i.e. wanking)

Bela is simply a remarkable musician, and the Wooten brothers are so good that they seem like cyborgs. Vic Wooten is, in my estimation, the greatest bass guitarist of all time. And yes I'm familiar with Jaco, but thanks for asking.

Everyone else listed here, the Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, et al, are simply unlistenable to me. Sorry. Just not my thing. If you are not high, then you will never enjoy listening to some of that stuff. No matter how good the musicians are, eventually, boredom sets in, unless you have something else augmenting your senses. And realize there most likely is something altering the musicians' senses, so it might help to be on the same page, so to speak.

My most honest take on it is that "jamming" is basically shit slinging. You throw enough stuff up at the wall, and eventually, something sticks. If you "jam" for 40 minutes each night, for 3 or 4 nights a week, then yeah, every now and then there should be some of those "remember that night in Baltimore" moments.

My most cynical take is that "jamming" is a replacement for regular rehearsal for some of these bands. They jam on other people's dime for a while, find a nugget here and there, and later forge that into a song. Nothing wrong with that, I don't guess.

That is, of course, just my opinion. YMMV. IAAM (I am a musician) but IANAJBE (I am not a jam band enthusiast).
posted by Ynoxas at 12:09 PM on April 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

I am wondering, is it because of the type of music that you find that type of performance "noodling"? The culture surrounding it, maybe?

I'd bet you'd more easily appreciate Monk and Coltrane improvising together. I doubt you'd call that noodling. But, they are doing essentially the same thing, only in a different style of music. You can probably conceed that it takes great skill on the part of Monk and Coltrane to pull that off together. It's the same for Phish and Dead, only you probably don't dig their music or are irked by the culture around it so it's harder to see the merit.
posted by milarepa at 12:16 PM on April 26, 2007

A way to completely get over them is to watch them perform live, on one of the nights Bela wants to take you on an existential voyage of the soul to the outer realms of the Flecky nebula. (i.e. wanking)

I disagree. Béla's "wanking" is infinitely more impressive to me than, say, Jerry Garcia's, because he is a better musician. I have never been bored during one of Fleck's solos.

It has nothing to do with "jamming" as a concept or genre; like everything else, there are people who suck and people who are good.

Put another way: Flamenco Sketches doesn't get boring in ten minutes, but the violin solo in a DMB song can get irritating after three.
posted by danb at 12:19 PM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: Well, with the Dead it's especially important to separate the musical discussion from the "cultural baggage" discussion. Musically, these guys were all players, and on their good nights the music takes on a very conversational quality, with considerable interplay. One of the secrets to the Dead's appeal is that they were masters of tension and release, which is the antithesis of noodling: on the good nights, the music goes somewhere, often somewhere unexpected, and it can be quite thrilling. These guys told cool stories with their instruments, and there was usually a lot of intrigue before they arrived at their conclusions. (And of course, on their lesser nights they sounded like just another bar band filling time, waiting for the lightning to strike. So it goes...)

Here are two personal favorites:

Hartford, CT, 10-15-1983. If you want to get a real good sense of the Dead's appeal in 10 minutes or so, just listen to the "Playing in the Band" from this show. It happily moves from order to weirdness, but it never loses it's musicality or crosses over into noise. Themes are developed and explored, and there is some very, very good jamming. I don't think it will bore you, and it's a solid introduction to their appeal.

Winterland (San Francisco), 11-11-1973. The "Dark Star" from this show is 30 minutes of musical bliss, featuring some exceptional playing and creativity - it's a very dynamic performance. speaking as someone who saw them ~240 times, they rarely played better than this. The version on the above link is streamed, so you may need to wade through some other songs to get to the Dark Star, but it's well worth it, IMHO.

Hoping the above helps...
posted by mosk at 12:33 PM on April 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I overcame a similar bias, scrump.

I would listen to the Dead's show from 3-1-69, particularly the first set. It's not just great musicians taking turns doing awesome solos; they are having a conversation with each other. If you enjoy listening to improvisation, that show should appeal to you. 5-8-77 is great fun to listen to, but, to me, not as exhilarating.

As for Phish, I like the Slip Stitch and Pass recommendation. Or maybe listen to something from summer/fall 97, when they were being funkier than usual. Or maybe the Clifford Ball show, from August 1996, which is the show that sold me on their awesomeness. "Punch You in the Eye," in particular. That's not their most jamming-heavy song, but it is intricate, intelligent, and pure fun.
posted by ibmcginty at 12:51 PM on April 26, 2007

(I should clarify that I didn't mean to imply that Jerry Garcia sucks. I just don't put him in the same league with Béla Fleck.)
posted by danb at 12:51 PM on April 26, 2007

Response by poster:
I am wondering, is it because of the type of music that you find that type of performance "noodling"? The culture surrounding it, maybe?
This is an excellent question, and it deserves an answer.

I tend to consider jam-band improv "noodling" because I just don't (as a musician and as a listener) feel the tension and high-wire-anxiety that comes along with jazz improvisation (or, really, improvisation in other genres, including stage performance and comedy). The "holy shit, how's she going to get herself out of this corner" aspect, or "waitaminute, where'd THAT come from, holy Moses, there they ALL go" aspect.

(As a side tangent, I think improv comedy and jazz are very, very closely related.)

Anyway, I hate to be trite, but jam band improvisation tends to make me think of the "my kid was honor student of the minute" syndrome: it doesn't seem to matter much if someone fucks up or falls flat, because, hey, we'll just kind of fake our way through until it sounds right or the audience forgets.

From my (admittedly limited) experience with jazz improvisation and sitting in, the stakes are pretty high in terms of your reputation in the community when you improvise: if you don't bring your A game, and screw up, nobody on the stage is gonna forget it.
posted by scrump at 1:21 PM on April 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You may like Leftover Salmon, particularly the album they did with Cracker covering Cracker's songs, titled "O Cracker Where Art Thou." At least, the songs will be familiar (assuming you know some Cracker songs) and you can see what they do with them musically. If you like that, then you might check out their other recordings. A friend of mine really, really digs their studio album "Euphoria." They also have a live recording.
posted by kindall at 2:44 PM on April 26, 2007

A good way to go might be to pick up Phish's Billy Breathes for the reason that it is not an improv heavy album. It is almost straight ahead classic rock and is instantly listenable if you enjoy rock music in the first place. Very good songs on there which you will hum in the shower after a couple of listens.

Then, maybe grab a Phish bootleg or two, picking those which have some Billy Breathes tracks on them. On those live shows they will improvise on everything. Having songs in that live show which you are already familiar with may open your mind to the rest of it.

Personally I would not recommend the Grateful Dead as a starting point for enjoying jam bands. They are good in their own right, but their sound and feel are not easy to appreciate right out of the gate.
posted by poppo at 3:00 PM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: If you want to appreciate the art of jamming, buy this abso-frigging-mazing live Led Zeppelin DVD set. I was too young to see Zeppelin in concert so I grew up on the tried-and-true studio recordings. But getting these DVDs and seeing these songs live and improvised, as they were meant to be, totally blew my mind.

Personally, I've never gotten into Phish or the Dead for the same reasons that you mentioned. I'm a jazz musician and I tend to find their jamming a bit too "safe" and rambling. The solos seem to just be there to fill time, not to tell a story or to drive in any direction.

But I think that's partly because we're weaned on the "ENTERTAIN ME OR ELSE" attitude. With these types of jam bands it's not about sitting and listening and being tittilated by each new note. I think we have to try to approach these from the performer's perspective, where the improvising is more of a meditative, possibly even spiritual exercise. If we can change our perspective and listen in a more "in the moment" sort of way, it might make it a bit easier to appreciate it.

But hey, if you don't like it, don't worry about it. Just because a lot of people like them doesn't mean that you're stupid or "missing something." Maybe they're just not your cup of tea. I've never gotten into either of those bands and it doesn't keep me up at night!
posted by Alabaster at 4:45 PM on April 26, 2007

The Slip isn't exactly a jam band, but they've toured on the same bill with jam bands a lot. They all studied together at Berklee, so they're grounded in jazz. And they're great. Their first albums are fairly improvvy -- the new material (including the linked YouTube) is a bit more towards straight indie rock.

Also, my cousin plays bass in this band, so don't take my opinion as decisive.
posted by escabeche at 5:51 PM on April 26, 2007

Appreciation of improvisation is not something any authority can give you. It's a mindset. It's about not expecting to be entertained; it's about wanting to be part of something that's happening right now and doesn't fit in words.

Much easier to find it by actually going to live shows with an open mind and a generous heart than by trawling through recordings.
posted by flabdablet at 6:20 PM on April 26, 2007

Best answer: I went to a lot of Grateful Dead shows between 1974 and 1994. I love the music, I love the lyrics. I generally had a great time at the shows. I find a lot of their music very moving and personally meaningful. Other stuff just reminds me of good times. I also admired Jerry Garcia as a fine and brave human being. Does that mean I think the Dead are awesome musicians? I don't know, I'm not a musician and I am in no position to judge.

My point -- I've never had half-baked people come up to me and insist that the Dead are awesome musicians, and I'm sorry this has happened to you so often. But would it be so surprising if people liked listening to jam bands and got off on the music or the concerts for reasons other than musicianship? Maybe the feeling that you have that there's something you don't get about the whole jam band thing is because you're trying to 'find merit' using a single standard. It's like missing out on what's special about Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash because Placido Domingo's got a better voice. Or Hank Williams because he doesn't use fancy words.

Now that I'm done with the rant, I'm going to answer your question. On the album Live Dead, right when St Stephen is starting, Garcia is playing alone, very tentatively. And slowly. And the feeling I get, after listening to what's come before that -- and knowing what's about to come -- is what I imagine it would be like to suddenly be alone in calm cool waters of a slow river after tumbling down a waterfall. Or to be in empty space after getting launched by a rocket. Garcia conveys that with about 12 notes of that sweet guitar. Some fine noodling.
posted by Killick at 7:46 PM on April 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Here is a discussion about favorite shows among folks who are already fans. It'll help you get some perspective on the discussion, as to which eras and which shows different people prefer.

To me, the 1970s Dead was a spectacular rock band, with great songwriting and jamming. But I prefer late 1960s Dead. Randy Newman once said of David Bowie that he tried to "enter the 21st century musically," and I think that description fits the 1960s Dead. The influence of improvisational artists like John Coltrane was more apparent in that era than in later years.

And I've been totally unable to get into 1980s and later Dead. I'll admit that I'm probably wrong about the 1980s, and I'll insist that 1990s Dead is not worth listening to.
posted by ibmcginty at 8:32 AM on May 6, 2007

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