Blair’s Golden Road Blog— Phish, WSP, Derek and Other “Fellow Travelers”
I don’t dig Phish. Lord knows I’ve tried. Through the years I’ve had so many people attempt to convert me. I dutifully auditioned live CDs fanatical fans would pass to me. I checked out every studio album that came my way, wondering if this would be the Phish album that would have songs that actually resonated with me. I recall when one came out a number of years ago a Phish Head pal proclaimed it “Phish’s American Beauty.” Uh, no. I watched most of a live Phish DVD a while ago, wondering if perhaps the visual element would get me off. Nope. “But you gotta see a show, man!” No doubt. I’m still open to that. But at this point, I really have heard many hours of Phish and it just doesn’t do it for me. The songs don’t sing to my soul, and even though the musicianship is clearly amazing on a technical level, it doesn’t hit me emotionally.
I’ve been through similar scenes with other jam bands (and my friends who like ’em). I can at least understand why Phish appeals to people, but in the case of Widespread Panic I don’t have a clue. They sound completely ordinary to me. Again, I’ve given them multiple chances to show me something — live and studio CDs — but the song craft isn’t there for me, the guitar playing does not blow my mind, and they lack even that quirky dimension that Phish has (way too much of). I suppose I have to see them live, too. So, who’s got my 10th row-center miracle ticket for that show? ’Cause in this era, with ticket prices what they are, I ain’t spending my concert money on a headliner there’s a good chance I won’t enjoy.
But here’s the thing: I root for both of those bands, and really, just about all jam bands, because they are “fellow travelers.” No, not fellow communists, as that term was originally applied decades ago, but musicians out of the mainstream dedicated to playing improvisational music before spirited and adventure-seeking crowds. I like any crowd that will dance—sorry, just standing there doesn’t count; gotta shake it at least a little — and any band that will get people up and moving. To me, it’s the highest form of musical communion. The Grateful Dead completely spoiled me, because not only did they inspire you to dance, they had perhaps the greatest song catalog (originals and covers) of any band ever, so every part of your body-mind-spirit was engaged. At this point, I’ve learned to go to shows not expecting that sort of soul-elevating trifecta, so I am often pleasantly surprised when I get one or two, and if not for an entire evening, at least in spurts.
It’s not like I want or expect bands to sound at all like the Grateful Dead. Yes, I love Furthur—it’s those guys and those songs, brought into The Now. But, as I’ve noted before, Dark Star Orchestra, who sound more like the Dead than Furthur, don’t do it for me. Even so, I still want them to do well, because they’re fellow travelers fighting the good fight and providing a space for the people who like them to experience something soulful and true.
My favorite of the first wave of jam bands — moe.— doesn’t sound anything like the Grateful Dead. Nor does String Cheese Incident, who I’ve enjoyed intermittently through the years. SCI and moe. also have made studio albums I love: Untying the Not and Wormwood respectively, and have written many fine songs. A group that I’ve come to love the last few years who go to some similar musical places as the Grateful Dead but in a completely different way is Railroad Earth. Again, it’s good songs as vehicles for inspired jamming, but more from the bluegrass side. Yonder Mountain String Band is often lumped into the loose jamgrass category, too, but for whatever reason I have not gotten into them in the same way. But I root for them, too!
The other night I went to the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco to see the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and they totally knocked me out with their alternately tight and jammy rock, R&B and soul sound. The crowd was great — hanging on every wail from Derek Trucks’ slide, and movin’ to the big, big sound of a surprisingly flexible 11-piece band, with Derek’s wife, Susan Tedeschi, out front with gritty lead vocals that at times recalled Bonnie Raitt, Bonnie Bramlett and other belters. Opening for the TTB was the married duo Tim and Nicki Bluhm (he’s best known as leader of the Mother Hips and also toured with the Rhythm Devils last year), and they were definitely not a jam band. They played short, catchy, country-flavored original songs—just two voices and one acoustic guitar—but you could tell they were fellow travelers because you could hear their roots in folk and old-time music, feel that the characters in their songs were flesh and blood, and that as performers they were connecting with each other and the audience. It was real. They got a tremendous reception from a crowd that was there to rock—but also open to being moved.
When it comes down to it, I guess what I’m really looking for, whether it’s from so-called jam bands or a solo singer with one instrument, is some sort of connection. When you find it, you know it—you can’t miss it! And when you get it, you want more. So the search continues…
OK, jam fans — tell us who you like and why! (And yes, I will take recommendations for THE Phish or Widespread Panic disc or download I have to hear!)
I have to say that I am in the same boat as Blair. I went through a brief Phish phase in high school, but a lot of "jam bands" just don't move me. I tried to listen to Panic recently and just couldn't see what all the fuss was about. At the same time, I never rooted against these guys (except for Dave Matthews - I think he's terrible. Got a great rhythm section, but that's it). I always say that friends don't let friends listen to STS9 or the Disco Biscuits. All those electronics just lack the soul that Blair so accurately described as part of the Dead's music.
It's kind of funny to me that he mentions Derek Trucks because I've been HUGE into him for over 10 years now - talk about soul! RRE is another favorite of mine. I've always been a believer that part of the Dead's success was that they wrote great songs as vehicles for jams, and not vice-versa (I think I read Hornsby say that at one point and it really stuck with me).
Blair - and everyone else - if you want to check out some playing that just drips with soul check out Rory Gallagher's "Irish Tour" CD. If the opening track - Cradle Rock - doesn't blow you away nothing will. Also, I'm a big fan of Paul Pena and his "New Train" record. Not a "jam" album, so to speak, but REALLY solid, and Jerry adds some pedal steel. I wish his first record would be re-released on CD. Oh well.
Thanks for the great blog post Blair!
"Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir." Time is a great storyteller. -- Irish Proverb
Good topic. I've thought about this from time to time. I'm just a few years younger than "the boys". So, sometimes I wonder, "What's next?"
No need to answer the question yet. I tend to listen to those, "once removed", Grisman and Kimock do it for me. Some really good shows of Kimock's at archive.org. One of the best non-Dead member shows I went to was "Ghosts of the Electricty" at Ashkenaz. I wish they would play again. It was all Dylan, all show. The show is also on archive.org. Of course, the entire band is "once removed" so maybe that's why I liked it so much.
I listen to the Jam station a fair amount. It's good but nothing sticks for me. Then again, there are still so many Dead,Ratgog, Phil, etc. shows I still haven't heard. Let's face it, we're spoiled!!!
on the bus since 68. enjoyed phish when i saw them 93-95 in louisville [where i live], they seemed to me to capture not only the instrumental brilliance of the dead, but also some of the relaxed humor of the dead's 1st 15 years. listen much more to jazz, which i started seriously listening to in 68 (charles lloyd w/ keith jarrett, gary burton w/ larry coryell . . .). never did see that much in wsp, but different strokes and all that. love allman brothers at least until dickey was fired [i was fortunate enough to see original lineup in n'awlins many times 70-71]. sonny rollins, at 80, blew the crowd away at n'awlins jazzfest recently, some of the same sense to me of the early dead, intelligent and danceable improvisation. derek trucks another true musician, wearing jazz influences proudly on his sleeve.
or at least one of their guys turned up at a Rex benefit on the East Coast not long ago as I recall!
Nice observations... and so civil! Could turn ugly, I guess! ;-)
I band I liked for a few minutes back whenever it was, was God Street Wine. No clue what happened to them...
wow. Dan R. That is literally the best review I have ever read. I completely agree with you about the biscuits drummer. Not a huge fan, although I have seen them plenty. He is far too good for them. Thought I was the only one to think that.
WSP.... is simply mediocre. For someone that considers the dead as THE BAND, you simply will not get WSP but don't fret, there are options for emotion. They just play and play with little direction. Far too much going on to truly enjoy. Too loud!
Options for emotion... The Wood Brothers are simply amazing and just so talented. Mumford and Sons are thrilling. Dave is great. Dave is probably the closest to the dead with the combo of jamming and emotional tunes. Amos lee is good. The combo of emotion and jamming is so hard to accomplish.
I would say that DSO is the best, but clearly the author does not. The thing about them is that they will toss all different styles from all different era's into the same song... as in they will play a thrilling help>slip from Boulder CO in feb of this year, that will have hints of the 70's, 80's, and 90's in it. I personally love this but everyone likes different things.
Furthur... I like the covers they do so much. The Good loving>Fool in the Rain from Hampton of this year is stupid good. I mean really amazing. But I must say that I feel they fall flat sometimes with the traditional songs. I hate to say it on a Dead thread but just as I believe that the drummer from the biscuits is too good, I feel that Russo may be too much for Bobby and Phil. He is a flipping monster that I feel leaves others in the dust live. Again, personal opinions.
Cheese... I feel as though I can FEEL their ego's when they play. These are guys that are all playing music outside cheese that are completely different from cheese, which should be desired, but I personally do not think it works for them. I mean Travis has EOTO, who are a complete waste of time. Nersh has a number of traditional grass bands. Kyle and Kang are playing cheesesque tunes.... When they get together, it doesn't really work for me. I think they are forcing themselves to play together. So with that, the early stuff is good but they are not hitting it as of recent.
Phish... They are what they are. Sometimes good and sometimes bad. I wouldn't look to them for emotion or meaning but rather a damn good time. The dead are a band that one could take seriously due to killer lyrics, killer timing, and them just being them. Phish are far superior musicians than any band in the jam band scene but they never had the intention to be prolific. Chalkdust torture? Guyute was an ugly pig... really? But damn they can shred. They also have great timing. They got big when the Dead were declining... and the times were just changing. No band can be on top forever and Phish offered something new and innovative. Now Mike Gordon can write a good tune and some goodish lyrics. His Solo act is the business.
Anyhow, I would suggest looking into what the band wanted to be. After the Dead, who I think are the only original Jam Band, all other bands really geared their presentation to become something. They had a jumping off point and could really be geared to what they envisioned. I like to think the Dead BECAME what they ended up as more so than other bands. Again, opinion. To sum it up, I think if someone is into the dead, and I mean truly into the dead, then that is it, there is no comparison. A Moe. fan can be a phish fan can be a cheese fan can be a lotus fan and so on.
Thanks for letting me write this!! I never get to talk tunes as my friends are all metal heads!!
In his own words... SHUT UP AND PLAY YER GUITAR!
"Watermelon in Easter Hay"!
One other comment: Most condescending asshole I ever interviewed!
The Dead is why we are here so ...
Phish is cool, Back on the Train has that sound also Sand and 46 Days.
Widespread is cool live but they have not hit it in the studio lately (sounds familiar)
moe. is also cool live but nothing comes to mind from the albums
Gov't Mule is an anomaly as Warren is so invested in so many other bands that
the range of the Mule is beyond any Jam band type label and is just
another of the the GREAT bands of our time.
Warren's new disc Man In Motion is worth the price.
Furthur is hitting the right spots.
Mountain Aire was a highlight.
Covering Abbey Road. . . whoa!
New material - Big BAD Blues
COME ON !
but if you want the real deal experience then come on down to SoCal
and catch the best deadband in the land (IMHO)
on Tuesday May 24, 2011 they did a
Terrapin>space>Morning Dew to curl your toes
Jerry was smilin' on this one.
but I'll still throw a Dicks Picks, Road Trips, Vault release, tape, archive retreival or gdradio.net on anytime I want some sound in the background.
The Sky Was Yellow And The Sun Was Blue
People Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand.
I can definitely identify with your feeling “spoiled” by the Grateful Dead. They really were one of a kind, and everyone else will pale by comparison. I was very resistant to Phish back in the day – literally ignored them – until I heard a couple of their songs on public radio and got instantly hooked (pardon the pun). For who they are and what they do, Phish are great fun, and the scenes at shows are a blast. Their jams can be kinda dry at times, but their music can definitely move you if you get into their groove. I do think they have a lot of really great songs, too, as well as fine choices in covers.
Railroad Earth is another favorite. They really seem to be able to connect with their audience and get a sweet groove going. Like Phish, they have good tunes, top-notch musicianship and a willingness to jam ‘til the cows come home – what’s not to love?
Nothing like the Dead though… those guys will always be the gold standard.
speaking of warren... did anyone see the Mule show at Bonnaroo 07 where he had John Paul Jones sit in for some songs? Bobby played a few too.... I was front row and high flyin.... out the window...bare naked :)