What are jam bands anyway?

Phish? The Grateful Dead? Galactic? Widespread Panic? Umphrey’s McGee? STS9? Soulive?

Jam bands. One of the oddest genres of music in the 21st century. Odd because it is so peculiar – drawing such a large, but rather isolated audience that remains as one of the most dedicated audiences in commercial music. But it is an odd one. I was a part of it. They are dedicated. Religiously. Seriously. And pretty random. You run across jazz aficionados, folk lovers, hippies (real ones), hippies (fake ones), hipsters, college students, seniors, middle-aged couples, and literally everyone in between. Calling themselves ‘Deadheads’ or ‘Phishheads,’ they proclaim their enthusiasm for their favourite jam band not only by telling you the ‘best concerts’ they’ve been to but by showing off merchandise: T-shirts, wristbands, headbands, necklaces, tattoos, hats – people live and breathe jam bands.

So let me give you the idea of jam bands from an insider’s perspective, a musician’s perspective. How do we make jam? What makes jam… jam? There are essentially three key elements to jam bands…

 

Live Performance: Live to Play Live

Live performance comes first and foremost for any jam band. As we pioneer further and further into the age of  digital producing technologies, jam bands prefer to stay true to their live performances. They don’t overproduce, overdub, or autotune. They prefer real, down-to-earth, face-to-face contact with their audience where their performance and musicality come first. The live performance for jam bands is not just a place to play what they’ve written in studio either. It is a lab. It is a space of creation. Most jam bands enter the stage with preset songs, but with huge gaping holes that are spontaneously filled with improvisation. Borrowing from jazz performance, jam bands incorporate extensive live improvisation (the act that is proverbially called jamming) into prewritten songs. This is the very evocative and emotional aspect of jam bands. This is where they stand out.

The special characteristic of playing live is, however, that jam bands are not only aural – they incorporate synesthesia. Phish is the prime example of this. A concert is not just a sound experience, but it heavily incorporates light, movement and colour. The mood is set by the total combination of music (music theory, harmony and dissonance), guitar tones, lyrics, crazy effects and strange sounds, and lights that create any atmosphere. Flashing bright lights act as eccentricity and speed, and slower lights bring the mood down to match the slow groove of the band. Phish is noted for having a ‘fifth member of the band’ – their light engineer. This encapsulates the point that jam bands play an experience. Not just a show. Not just a record. Not just a radio snippet. But a holistic atmosphere of sound, colour, light and movement.

 

Musical Eclecticism

Focusing on the sound, most jam bands embody myriad genres into their music. Crossing everything from folk, jazz, rock, metal, classical, baroque, 21st century avant-garde classical, blues, reggae, funk, disco and pop – jam is an eclectic genre. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are a few links to some diverse sounds in the genre.

Folk, bluegrass, acoustic? Try The Grateful Dead.

Rock of all kinds? Try Phish.

Funk, blues, jazz and New Orleans spice? Try Galactic.

Drum and bass cover of Eleanor Rigby? Go for Soulive.

 

Approach to Music

Jam bands have an interesting tendency when regarding their musical material. Unlike many other genres in contemporary music production, jam bands don’t mind if their live material is bootlegged and distributed for free. Yes they still produce and sell studio albums. They even record and sell most of their live shows. But they see free distribution of their music as unproblematic. There are other bands in given genres that give their music out for free (at some point in time – à la Radiohead’s In Rainbows), but jam bands are unique insofar as this phenomenon is more or less genre-wide. Click here to heck it out if you’re interested. There are plenty of other sites to plunder, but this is a good start.

 

Jam on!

 

To be honest, I’d rather not say much more about these bands. I think most of what needs to be said is here, and the rest is in the music. The bands I listed at the top are a great introduction to the jam world. Below is a link to each one (and more) with some music for your enjoyment. Try it out. But just a warning… once you get it, it’s hard to let it go. Jam fans are some of the most devout for a reason.

 

The Grateful Dead

Widespread Panic

The String Cheese Incident

Blues Traveler

Galactic

Umphrey’s McGee

STS9

Phish

 

Michael Melia

Image – Omasz