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!)
Apart from the Dead, I am not a big jam band fan at all. I am the Dead Obsessed type- collecting facts, song histories, last time played, etc- but have found very few bands who bring the same level of songwriting, live energy, and experimental improvisation to the stage. I was into Phish in the '90's (they were the methadone to GD's heroin) mainly because of the improv, as I found many of their actual songs honestly unbearable.
The only other jam band besides the Dead I have wholeheartedly embraced is moe. I love the songs, love the techno/house aspect of their better jams, and think that no one- not even the Dead- segues from song to song so seamlessly and effectively. Their live segues are like slowly transforming Escher paintings, similar to what the Dead would do with Scarlet-> Fire on a patient, in-the-zone night.
I am also a HUGE Zappa fan, for countless number of reasons. If you have never ventured into live Zappa, there is some amazing improvisation there- guitar solos, jazz outings, weird electronic collages. Zappa brought to the stage what the Dead never even considered bringing- an incredibly tight well rehearsed band who could switch styles/tempo/mood at the drop of a hat and could also jump off the deep end into the most boundary-less improvisation. Amazing stuff.
Most other jams bands? Just don't do it for me.
Loved 'em when I saw them a couple of years ago opening for RatDog in San Jose. Went to their Halloween show last fall at the beautiful Fox in Oakland and dug the first set--Who's Next turned out to be a perfect choice for their traditional Halloween album surprise--but found much of their second set to be slow and sludgy. Warren sure does like those midtempo, Bad Company-style rockers--and I don't.
I'm definitely pro-Warren, however...
I thought the version of the Allmans with him and Dickey Betts was awesome, and the version with Warren and Derek pretty good, too, but missing that Betts touch (and his voice and many of his songs) that has always helped define the Allmans' sound for me... I've also enjoyed Warren's stints in both the PLQ and The Dead, especially his singing on Garcia tunes. His sit-in with Furthur at the Best Buy last tour was also very cool...
What about the Mule!!!! Right on with RailRoad Earth....Todd is a genius and they create great imagery with the music!!!!
... but is there an archive.org equivalent where one could easily stream a given Phish show, like a couple mentioned by Dan above? Downloading from some sites is kind of a hassle sometimes; I love how on archive, you click it and you're listening...
Actually, I have struggled with Phish for many years. Up through 2000, I followed them based on a potential that they would eventually become great. I largely ignored them in the 2002-2004 period. The return in 2009 was good, but inconsistent.
2010 was a great year for Phish, with many fine shows. Nonetheless, they still have a tendency to get carried away on energy trips, attempting to create a bigger peak out of a jam that's worn thin. Sometimes it works, but often, it's just noisy.
Their Japan Relief release through their live download site is really good, particularly since they were making an effort to introduce themselves to a new audience. Being on such good behavior brought out the best in the boys.
But I am a fan of dynamic music. August 18, 2010 showcases Phish attaining something really special, where the second half of both first and second set reaches a type of musical perfection I have not often heard anywhere. I think this is pretty well the best music I have ever heard from them. They are not the Dead, they are their own thing.
As for other music I find extremely moving, Larry Coryell released a great instrumental trio album this past year called "Mongomery," and although the acoustic bass player is a little weak in the mix, I find this entire disc very engaging, and it tells a great musical stoy.
Another must-have, in my opinion, is Herbie Hancock: "River: The Joni Letters." Here is an album that really does have it all. As with great art, you can't really judge it until you've formed a connection with it through repeated listenings. I hate to say it is superior to the Grateful Dead, but I feel that this single disc accomplishes everything the Dead set out to do and more. Great songs, great band chemistry, conversations passed around infinitely, brilliant moments of magic, and then: Nefertiti, for the intense space junkies. The album even has a great conclusion.
As for the usual jam-band scene, it's funny to me. The Dead rolled on a poly-rhythmic groove, including point-counterpoint discussion among the sounds, and the contrapunctal bass lines of Phil Lesh. Further, Jerry Garcia's motto seemed to become "Don't Ease Me IN," which is to say, he wouldn't allow himself to get caught in any one theme for very long, creating a sense of traveling through space and time.
Nowadays, most jam bands just lock in a groove, and there's a soloist on top. Since Phish returned in 2009, they have really sounded authentic to me for the first time, but you still have to filter though lots of fluff to find the really great stuff. LIkewise, I have heard some performances of Widespread Panic where the band transcended time and space, turning corners in their jams, blasting through doors of danceable grooves, and inventing great segues. But musicianship of the sort seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. Even String Cheese Incident would just fall into a groove.
One band I have followed is the Disco Biscuits, as they maintained the danger and adventure, but when I stepped away and came back, they were also not exactly what they seemed. Lately, I have thought that their drummer is too good for them. On the other hand, if you listen to Nughuffer>Great Abysss from March 5, 2009, they may make you believe there is no finer band in the world. The recording on Live Music Archive is very good of that one.
One thing that sets the Dead apart from the others seems to be the rule of volume. May current jam bands seem to choose volume of crescendo over the great plains of a good Amaericana groove. Rather than paint pictures of the world through the medium of sound, they only seek to get people dancing harder and harder to the hardest, loudest peak. Even the chaos sounds are more decorative than functional. Man, who had a better way with wrong notes than the Grateful Dead? Only a select few among the world of jazz artists seem to understand.
And speaking of jazz, have you heard the Wayne Shorter Quartet? They get better and better and better. They make standard jazz form sound limited and restrictive. They may well be the pioneers of the jazz-jam-band. Although many jazz players (Garage Mahal, probably representing a true jam form above and beyond the others) promote themselves in the jamband scene, few are true jam explorers. Wayne Shorter contains an inverted musical sound, and although the setlists may appear similar, the music is original, adventurous, and often not repetitious. They reinvent themselves night after night without altering their basic sound. It's hard to find live recordings, but there are many radio broadcasts in the past decade that have made it onto download sites, and they sound brilliant.
Larry Coryell: Earthquake at the Avalon is also a great album to play loud. Although some tracks are not the most inspired, there are more than a few that rank with the best guitar music in my collection. The track "Morning Sickness" started as a simple jam in the studio that was so good that it made it to an album in the late '60's. ON "Earthquake at the Avalon," the band performs it for the first time ever, and I think it qualifies as "jamband music," for all the great twists and turns over a country funk rock groove.
As it goes, so much great music. But returning to the Dead, how about 9.19.70, 9.27.72, the Weather Report from 6.28.74, and an expanding list that goes on and on. There are really so many different and distinct "Grateful Dead"s. I only heard the 5.6.81 He's Gone for the first time recently. It's right up there with the best.
So go to Live Music Archive, check out Dog Gone 4.13.2010, and tell me what you think. That's me on lead guitar digesting my influences through Grateful Dead standards (we didn't have time to prepare originals for that test gig). I just moved up to the Bay Area and am looking for some good people to work with. Life is chaos right now, much like this essay. But I'm ready to start something new.
I have some Phish but I am not a huge fan. probably because I am such a big Dead fan. Phish and Dave Matthews followed in the Dead tradition but it is a hard act to follow. Susan Tedeschi is from NE, so I have seen her quite a few times and she is good. Her latest releases weren't as good as the early albums. but hopefully the new Truck-Tedeschi which I ordered is good. She also was on tour with the The other Ones when I saw them in Hartford about 10 years ago. WSP, I am not all that familar with but in todays Wall Street Journal is an article about guitarist John Bell's alternative energy house.