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!)
Bruno, I agree about that "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?" from In Concert. It has been years since I heard that version. I have been to many concerts over the years, but I can attribute any hearing loss I have to one drunken night of jamming In Concert extremely loud in my friends' small house.
I really like the Live at the Fillmore version though-- I love the beautiful jazzy solo at the end. Deadheads who have not heard live Derek and the Dominos should go out and get either or both of those cd sets, though my preference is the Live at the Fillmore cds. The Dominos was an amazing set of musicians who could really play.
I have to revisit my previous comment..after downloading this past weekend's Bethel Woods shows from bt.etree and listening to them all day at work.....these were great shows. Someone else said that Phish was better after 2009....maybe they're onto something....
..even a blind man knows when the sun is shinin'...you can feel it!..
is a phenomenal guitarist (and obviously a great songwriter), but it frustrates me he won't play more. He does "economical" as well as anyone, but I want to him really jam... man! Ain't gonna happen...
Blair wrote: "...something I DON'T Like about Phish--their tendency to work in really short melodic/rhythmic ideas..."
My one live Phish experience I decided that I liked the piano and bass a lot and was impressed by the drums, but Trey A. was not my cup of tea, because his solos seem to be all short phrases. It is just my taste but I always liked the longer solos that developed, that had a beginning, a middle and an end. See Peggy-O from 7-1-80 for a fairly short example. Or the "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad from _Derek and the Dominos in Concert_ (not the version on _Live at the Fillmore_). Zappa at his best (the solos if not the larger pieces) and Richard Thompson are two others who I really like in that way.
My son the Phish-head says he sees what I mean about Trey's solos but he likes them.
Great blog, great thread.
I have to quote the above post from Estimated-Eyes about my feelings for Phish: "While technically very good, I find them to be fairly soul-less and a bit too intense at times."
I have always liked Widespread Panic. I was fortunate to be able to see them in bars in the early 90's as well as the summer sheds. What I liked about them when Michael Houser was alive was that the band seemed to be trying to create a sound in unison, versus a lead player soloing over the band vamping behind. I've been surprised to read about how loud they are, I didn't notice that when I was seeing them live. (The Black Crowes were the only band I saw that I thought was too loud.) I'm surprised they are not more popular in the GD community. Maybe it is a regional thing, I have lived in the SE for 35 years now.
The Allman Brothers were a favorite of mine from about '91 till 2004 or so. Their restrictive policy about online shows eventually caused me to lose interest. I can't go see them anymore because of my wife's health and I can't afford $25 for every concert I want to hear. I don't understand it because Warren, Derek, Oteil, and Jaimoe can all be downloaded.
Derek and Warren are an incredible combo to watch. Derek has a cool, effortless style while Warren looks like he is pouring himself into every note. I miss the contrast Dickey Betts brought against Gregg's voice, but Derek and Warren make up for it with their playing.
I generally agree with Blair's post. I have tried Phish and WSP in varying degrees over the years. The musicians in Phish are exceptionally good, but their music has never resonated fully with me. I like some of their stuff, especially some tunes from Lawn Boy (Run Like and Antelope, Bathtub Gin), but they just don't grab me. While technically very good, I find them to be fairly soul-less and a bit too intense at times. I saw them twice in the mid-1990s and one time I had a fine time and the other they just didn't do it for me. I have one WSP cd that I like okay and I also saw them in the mid-1990s-- once again just an okay show. I found it fairly redundant.
I watched some Dead DVDs over the weekend and it is very clear to me. Jerry Garcia had that magical "IT" that elevated the music to a higher level. It made me really miss having the option to go see Jerry play. No other band has brought that magic to the table. I very much enjoyed Ratdog shows and the 09 Dead and I like Furthur (please visit the Midwest!) a lot, but Jerry was the man. I will spare you all my theory about the world and how much better/different it would be if JG was still alive.
So, jam bands, nobody does it better than GD. I am a blues fan, however, and have seen some great stuff. Hands down, the best show I have ever seen outside of GD was Luther Allison at a club in 1997. After a smoking two-hour set, he did a blistering one-hour encore. I have never seen anybody leave it all out on the stage like he did. Sadly, his body was consumed with tumors at the time and he died within two months of the show.
But, who to see today? Kenny Neal is a really solid player with a killer band. I'd like to see the Tedeschi/Trucks Band, that Derek Trucks is amazing (he played with Clapton a couple years ago and they did great shows with a lot of rare Derek and the Dominos tunes in the sets).
Yes! So true! Jerry had it in spades; Hunter, too...
Blair-check out WSP's latest studio-"Dirty Side Down".