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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.

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