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!)
Phish is as intriguing as those old mentos commercials. Sorry.
Thanks, you made my day.
Guess we just grok. This isn't the first or I am sure the last time this will happen. And the Dead knew all about Grok. Stranger In a Strange Land was big for them.
To grok ( /ˈɡrɒk/) is to intimately and completely share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Heinlein's view, grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed. From the novel:
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
How do you read my mind, Hal?
Be careful, it is a mess in here!
That post is just exactly perfect........;o}
The Truth is realized in an instant, the act is practiced step by step.
I'm also a part of the generation that got into the Dead in the early 90's. I had some absolutely amazing experiences, but I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like to see the band in a really intimate venue back in their heyday. I started seeing Phish in '92 because I had so many people say that they were the new Grateful Dead. While the Dead they ain't, I did have some life changing experiences seeing them in tiny little venues and hanging out with the band after the shows in the parking lot (this was before there was a parking lot scene for Phish). It was really incredible to have that intimacy. While their music never resonated as deeply with me as the Dead's did, it was never the less an exciting thing to witness and be a part of. Phish was always a little too goofy for me. While I certainly had plenty of moments when their antics made me double over in laughter, I just couldn't take them as serious. My absolute favorite show was at a tiny theater in Bloomington, Indiana at which they did the vibration of life. It was one of the most serious moments at a Phish show that I ever witnessed. Yes, I was dosed to the gills, but it was truly a transcendent moment. The Louisville show that year was also fantastic.
I haven't really gotten into too many of the other bands in the jam band scene, but I am glad I finally let myself got to a Dark Star Orchestra show. For me it's just about enjoying, celebrating, and dancing to music that is so important to me. They really do a fine job. I've also seen a dozen or so Further shows, and I absolutely love them. It's so good to see Phil and Bob out there living life and doing what they love. I hope I can still do it at their age!
One group that, to me, goes to similar spaces that the Grateful Dead did it is the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. They are a Swedish jazz trio that effectively combine electronics with the acoustic jazz tradition. I really can't speak highly enough about their ability to improvise, and they're not afraid to get spacey! Seeing them live was truly breathtaking. Sadly, they are no longer together after the untimely passing of Esbjorn. I can't recommend their music highly enough to anyone who enjoys music made for the moment. All of their records are great, but check out "Seven Days of Falling" and "Tuesday Wonderland" if you're interested. One other new band in Seattle has really knocked my socks off, too. They're called Trip the Light, and it seams that they can't play without a room full of people spontaneously getting to their feet to dance. Fantastic stuff!
For me the whole jam band scene and jam band music has been a breath of fresh air that brought me renewed energy and joy after Jerry left us.
However none of these bands will to me ever equal the Good Old Grateful Dead. It’s like the Dead were this delicious new kind of stew with all these great ingredients thrown together. You have Stravinsky, Beethoven, John Cage, Ravi Shankar, Buddy Holly, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, bluegrass, The Anthology of American Folk Music, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Wes Montgomery, Chicago Blues, Texas Blues, honky tonk piano, drumming from around the world and more mixed together and out comes the Grateful Dead.
The newer jam bands coming out from the 80s on tasted this stew and loved it and made their own musical stews but they didn’t know the original ingredients as well as the Grateful Dead. They made their stews from the Grateful Dead stew, the Cream stew, the Allman Brothers stew and the Zappa stew so the stews were kind of second hand stews. Most of the jam bands weren’t brought up on jazz, Indian music, the blues, folk and classical, they were brought up on rock and roll. So they don’t have as deep an understanding of the roots that went into the original Grateful Dead, Cream, ABB and Zappa stews. They are removed from the soil of Americana in an increasingly urbanized, industrialized and technological society. The Grateful Dead have some type of connection to blue collar, working class America, which few if any of the newer jam bands have. The Dead have soul from this and also a deeper connection to African-American music than I see in any of the jam bands (Gov’t Mule being the exception).
What else. The Grateful Dead cover much of the gamut of emotions and human activities; joy, recklessness, dancing, love, deep thought, transcendence, spirituality, working your hands raw, and deep sorrow. It is a rare and beautiful bird that can sing all this. When I am hurting the Dead can help to comfort and heal. I just don’t get that from the other jam bands (except Kimock and Gov’t Mule). I can’t really imagine listening to Phish after the death of someone close to me but I do listen to the Dead. Also the Dead can break open the cosmic egg and open up the universe. To me the other jam bands can crack it open and give me a peak but they are not flying the cosmos of an uncharted universe like the Dead do when at their best. For many of us the Grateful Dead get very spiritual in a variety of ways, which I really don’t get from many of the other jam bands. Fun, yes but not often entering the realm of cosmic consciousness that the Dead may open one to. We all know how many Deadheads have explored a variety of religious experiences be it through psychedelics, meditation, yoga, tai chi, mountain climbing, running, hiking, reading, immersing oneself in the arts. We are seekers - Furthur. We and the band share this; we don’t play if conventional and safe.
Lastly what puts the Dead above all the other jam bands is having one incredible songwriting team (Garcia/Hunter) and a very good one as well (Weir/Barlow). Their songs have gone beyond the Deadhead world and are part of the mainstream conversation at times.
To me the jam bands can take me on some great adventures and peaks but they never reach the heights or the depths that come with the Grateful Dead.
I just can’t imagine any of these groups except Kimock bands taking me where the Allman Brothers and especially the Grateful Dead have.
So I guess I really didn’t say much about what jam bands I like and why, that will be later, just have to say the Dead are the best in the League.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
with all those who praise Trey's musicianship. How did folks like Oysterhead? (I don't know Les Claypool's work well, but I'm firmly in the camp of those who like him. The time he opened for Phil at the Greek I was in heaven. The audience was about half and half heaven and hell.:-) )
They are contrived, though some originality. I notice, living in the place where they came out of, they really don't have too many die-hard fans.
This has been a great thread for the opinions of others. I'll be checking out more than few of these.
I haven't seen MMW in a number of years. Not really my favorite sound, frankly, though I recognize they can all play... Not really a huge fan of organ as a lead instrument... Haven't seen or heard the latest Warren band. Seems like it would be up his alley, though... He can sing about anything IMO... Did a nice "Roadrunner" with Furthur, which is in his new soul bag, I guess. Saw Keller once a few years ago and have listened to his last couple of albums. Fun, energetic guy. I heard he was good with the Rhythm Devils...
I'm curious. Do you like Medeski, Martin & Wood? Calling them a jam band isn't entirely accurate, but their shows are tremendous. It's closer to jazz. Talk about chops. They have it in spades and make improvisation look easy. Whenever they are in the Boston area, which isn't nearly enough, I get out to see them.
Another band worth checking out is the new Warren Haynes Band. I saw them a couple of weeks ago. It's R & B and soul-flavored with tight jams and great backing vocals. And the audience was on their feet, dancing all night. I was in about the sixth row, and a couple of times I turned around and said to myself, "wow, EVERYONE seems to be dancing tonight!" And he played none of his 70s-inspired rockers that he seems to enjoy so much with the Mule.
Lastly, have you caught Keller Williams? It's a fun show. He's very talented, but not much of a song writer (at least in my eyes). He throws interesting dead covers into almost all of his shows. I went through a little faze with him, but haven't followed him recently. The whole thing kinda gets tiring, but I respect that he's out there doing what he does.
Thanks hippie pat!
I checked out Cabinet on Archive and then the band's Website. Hot!! It will (at least) take a while for them (or anyone) to pass Railroad Earth or Greensky Bluegrass, but Wow. They operate in my current neck of the woods so it looks as if I will be able to catch a show very soon.
On the "generation gap," I saw Phish two years ago and was by far the oldest person I saw there (in my 50s). Someone handed my a leña and, I swear, called my sir: "Would you like some, sir?" Very odd experience. The band have been around for almost 30 years so there has to be older "heads."