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I found this great article in the New York Times online last night. It chronicles and attempts to explain The Grateful Dead and the loyal/obsessive following that the band carries to this day. The article stood out to me because the subculture of “Dead Heads” so closely resembles the world of Phish that I was heavily involved in during the late 90’s.
I don’t really listen to Jam Band music anymore, but the interesting thing to me now about this article, and the Jam Band scene as a whole, is the live concert taping and analysis. Every show these guys played was different (both for The Dead and for Phish), and so the fans sought to capture the nuances of each one. This just doesn’t happen with other pop/rock artists. Perhaps Radiohead will put out a live album every now and then, but nobody tapes and circulates each individual night of a given tour.
As I was thinking about this culture of immense dissection/criticism and why it doesn’t exist in the live shows of pop/rock artists beyond just a handful of Jam Bands, I realized that it’s probably because most touring acts don’t play MUSIC as much as they put on a SHOW. I don’t mean this negatively, I’m just pointing out that an emphasis on lighting, choreography, and other special effects make for a spectacle that has amazing power and attraction – a multi-sense experience that music alone can’t quite reach. But, this experience also ends up requiring itself to be operated and performed in a very specific and precise manner, and therefore needs to be exactly the same tonight in Minneapolis, and tomorrow in Chicago, and next week in Orlando. Well, then of course acquiring tapes of each individual concert, if they are all exactly the same, ends up being pointless.
Don’t worry – I’m getting to a point, and it’s this: I’m realizing more and more each year that I’ve always been (and probably always will be) a guy who just likes MUSIC. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good show. I love U2 and Peter Gabriel, and I enjoy the incredible marriage of great music and great special effects at those artist’s shows. It’s just that I will probably always prefer a guy like Keith Jarrett, because Keith is pouring himself into the music only. There’s no frills or distractions in his performances, regardless of the pleasant experience that those extra-curricular elements might bring to an audience member. Keith is speaking the language of music alone, and in so doing he’s reaching a level of eloquence and depth that I think is unparalleled in a “show.” A great show has depth, but not as much on the MUSIC side of things, which, as I said, is where my personal interest lies. While I certainly don’t want to put Keith and The Dead in the same category, I will say that this “music-only” emphasis is something that the they share.
Again, I love a good show as much as the next guy, so don’t misunderstand me there. I’m just going on record saying that, at the end of the day, I think I’m a “music only” guy, which is probably why the Phish tape-trading scene was so attractive to me when I was younger. Ten years ago, after I finished my freshman year of college, I spent the summer painting the exteriors of houses and apartment buildings. And over those 3 months, I circulated twice through my 400-tape collection of bootleg Phish concerts. I would spend ten hours on the ladders with my brush and my walkman, just listening to tapes the whole time, and I really really enjoyed noticing the nuances and fingerprints of each show. I didn’t need the lights… or pyrotechnics… or whatever. Just the music was enough to make those ten hours go by before I knew it.
Anyway, to bring it back around, I think the above-linked article about the Dead Heads and their detail-oriented analysis of live shows reveals a cool thing about The Grateful Dead – that they were a “music-only” band. Regardless of whether you like their music, you can’t deny that those dudes played MUSIC… nothing more and nothing less.
Even though I have “moved on” in my listening, and now enjoy comparing and contrasting Steve Jordan in the 80’s vs today, and the Radiohead B-sides compared to their official releases, instead of disecting the differences between Phish shows – it is still the same deep well of MUSIC that draws me. I’m going to go listen to Keith Jarrett now.
I dropped the ball on AOTW for two weeks in a row there. Whoops. Had a busy run for the first half of December I guess.
Anyway, I’m back at it with a great record for this week… and it’s a blast from the past for me. That’s right, for all the haters out there… I’m putting Phish in the AOTW series, and I don’t feel bad about it. When I was in high school I thought Phish was God’s gift to music… the perfect band that played the perfect songs and never did anything that shouldn’t be wholly praised. Well, let’s just say I think a little differently now. I’ve grown as a musician to the point where I see the legitimacy of much of the criticism commonly brought against the jam band giant, and I’ve not listened to them for more than a hour over the last 6 years.
And yet, this week I resurrected their last studio album, called Undermind. Listen people… it’s good. Ok? Just accept it. Phish made A LOT of good records in my opinion, but this final offer from them is undeniably good, and a record where I think they successfully shed a few of their immature habits from the early years, and in so doing they managed to actually put together a SERIOUS recording from the “Jam Band” genre.
A big part of Undermind’s coolness is the fact that it was produced by the fantastic Tchad Blake. Blake has never produced anything that didn’t turn into complete awesomeness… and Phish is no exception. It’s actually a testament to Phish’s ontological cool factor that Blake even agreed to do the record, because I’ve heard he’s prone to rejecting offers from serious bands if he thinks they aren’t hip enough… (rumor has it REM has been trying to get Blake to produce one of their records for 10 years, and he won’t even return their phone calls). Blake took most of the things I’ve always disliked about Jon Fishman (Phish’s drummer) and “fixed” them, all while keeping Fishman in his element. The guitar playing is incredible, which is nothing less than expected from band-leader Trey Anastasio (in fact, I highly recommend his self-titled solo album). The songs are a great example of Phish’s aimless lyrics and smart harmonic composition. The flow of the record is comfortable and natural. And the improvising… well, that’s always been their greatest strength.
So, just indulge me and check out Undermind by Phish. I think you will like it, and if you don’t… I don’t care.
PS. Let me reiterate that Phish is not just a band with a cool record I’ve been listening to lately. Phish’s music was the single-most dominant influence in my formative years of playing music. I’ve seen them 36 times live, and I own over 400 bootleg tapes of their live shows. That’s right… TAPES. The band is an enormous link in the chain of my musical development, and although I don’t consider them to be musical divinity like I once did, I still think anyone/everyone who strives to be creative in making music will benefit from listening to Phish.
AOTW for this week is a very mid-90’s sounding album (tone-wise), but the music is totally slamming. Bruce Hornsby’s 1995 release Hot House is a favorite in the Goold home, and for good reason. The music is a great combination of catchy grooves/melodies, with smart (even chopsy) playing.
Hot House covers a wide range of genre and style, and most of the tunes have extended jams and vamps that land each song at roughly 5 minutes or more. But the lengthy songs don’t get old or feel forced, and this is probably due to Hornsby’s history (he was a member of Jam pioneers The Grateful Dead as well as performing on countless other “Jam” records). Because of this, the record has a distinct Jam Band feel to it, but the music is much smarter than the typical Jam recording (i.e., it doesn’t have the aimless and meaningless quality of, let’s say, a String Cheese Incident record).
Another cool aspect of Hot House is the long list of guest musicians. Bela Fleck, Pat Metheny… even Jerry Garcia are all joining Hornsby on various tracks throughout the recording, and making their presences felt with killer performances.
Hornsby’s drummer on this record is John Molo, a staple Jam Band player most widely known as a member of The Other Ones (the band that most of the members of The Dead formed after Garcia died). Molo has a very solid feel, and plays on the simple side of what you would expect from a Jam Band drummer, but I love it. He seems to be totally comfortable in each of the many styles on the record… In fact, I think Hot House would probably be my top recommendation for any drummer looking to broaden their knowledge of how to play various feels. This album is also has tons of odd time signatures, and Molo keeps things solid in that department too.
My favorite track is the opener… Spider Fingers. Go listen to it and tell me it isn’t one of the coolest piano-driven songs you’ve ever heard. And, here’s a bonus video of Hornsby playing Spider Fingers, solo piano…
PS… Runner up for AOTW this week is Branford Marsalis’ Requiem. I was listening to it this morning and HOLY BUCKETS does it rule.