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!)
Thanks Deadicated and jonapi for the kind advice and recommendations. I'll surely take them to heart. I should have mentioned that even though it seemed like nearly 1/4th the crowd walked out of the Ornette concert I saw, those that remained gave him a joyous, roaring standing ovation. In the end I consider myself an Ornette fan, and I'll be there next time he comes to town. I agree its all about the journey and I don't mind a little confusion along the way. My favorite jazz so far is the 2nd great Miles quintet-those 1965 Plugged Nickel recordings are stunning.
I haven't given up on Zappa. I usually take a few of his CD's when I go on a long road trip. Nothing beats the Grateful Dead 68-74 for good road trip music,but when you need some variety- Zappa's usually a good bet. I saw a neat Zappa concert last year- a whole concert of the Yellow Shark orchestral music (outdoors!) by the Ensemble Modern. It was fun, no complaints. Just nothing very deep.
Thanks to everyone involved for this great blog!
Thanks for the reminder about those improv specials. I've been hyped on those by numerous folks and somehow always manage to forget 'em!
Lots of food for thought in your posts, jonapi. Thanks!
And thanks to all of you who have made listening suggestions! I've already checked out some...
Interesting response to the "free jazz" mention.
I think it is one of those kinds of music that may well need a "gentle" entry point. My interest started through the earlier Standards, then Hard Bop, then the more freer, avant-garde pieces. Once the ear becomes accustomed to a stated theme or melody, then it's the exploration and extemporisation that follows that can produce gold; bit like the Dead, really. Not always, of course! Sometimes its just wailing that doesn't go anyway (which is why some of Miles' stuff was abruptly curtailed when he felt it wasn't "happening", Coltrane too), but its the Journey that was important. Again, like the Dead; wading through a disappointing 2 hours of lethargy for THAT jewel to appear, bright as the sun. Not every Jazz titan produced amazing music all of the time, contrary to popular opinion that the sun shined out of their rear quarters (witness some of those Charlie Parker recordings, where he is drunk/doped).
As for your comment about "never sure i'm really getting it" Turlock, i really wouldn't approach it in that way; if it moves you, you've "got it". Don't force it because it will run away from you every time. Let it wash over you; listening on a different day with different weather at different hours can produce different results. There is a danger in Jazz to succumb to that chin-stroking, anal stereotype who will smirk if you are not dutifully clapping a certain solo, or if you can't name all the chord inversions in a Coltrane improvisation. Jazz (music in general actually), like the world of wine has an unbelievable amount of snobbery surrounding it. If you like it, it's good. END of story. As Mr. Muir once said, "Remember, "Cool" is only three letters away from "Fool"".
But, i do feel that trying again and again, when the muse calls can lead to revelation; sometimes dipping in at the "wrong place" can put your off for life; hearing a '95 Dead, slowly strangling a ballad would not be a good entry point to their music!! Same for Zappa. They both have such a varied sound and diversity throughout their careers (Zappa more so, obviously), that one can easily hit a track that kills it stone dead. (I remember the first time i heard the Grateful Dead was purchasing beautiful vinyl copies of Aoxomoxoa and American Beauty, and while i loved them dearly, they weren't the improvising, psychedelic beast that i'd been reading about. Was that it? NO! i just hadn't heard the live stuff at that time, money and exposure being tight an' all). It was time to try again.
Sun Ra, too has a huge body of work, from '50's Big Band, Walt Disney interpretations, gorgeous ballads, massed vocal chanting, pioneering electronic organ colourings, psychedelic blankets of revelatory noise and Afro-Futuristic philosophical epiphanies.
This will change your life everybody - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UINN_bQzCPE
Albert Ayler = Deep Spiritual, Gospel Infused Marches and Blues Energy Music. No other way to say it.
Try this too -
David S. Ware - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFU1arKn7T8
And this site has a great collection of Jazz and Avant Garde/Improvised specials, featuring performances and interviews. (Never mind the presenter though! Still not sure if she's putting that on or is really like that...). I'd recommend Andrew Cyrille, William Parker, Jerome Cooper, Pauline Oliveros, Sainkho Namchylak, Billy Bang, Ned Rothenberg, Min Xao-Fen, Ikue Mori, Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill, Tenko, Christian Wolff and Earl Howard....for starters that is!!
And lastly, i'd recommend this; it's an extraordinary series of documentaries by Derek Bailey on the art of improvisation, featuring many interviews and clips with those artists striving for musical alchemy (Jerry and the Dead are featured too in Episode IV).
That whole website is an archive of incredible recordings and film available to stream. Essential material for the ears of the universe and eyes of the world.
Love your honesty, Blair; a really refreshing change. Got to love someone who speaks his mind.
I'll end with a cheeky "shout out" to Mr. Kreutzmann, for his drumming inspiration, approach to music and for adding the Fish Fight campaign to his Tribes section! (not the post really for that but i did warn that cheekiness would make an appearance!!).
No where's my 57 minute Coltrane performance of "My Favourite Things".......
the one not included in "Beauty is A Rare Thing" is his first and only for OJC called "Something Else!!!" Seems more accessible even than the stuff from just a year later.
The guy I really like is Eric Dolphy. Miles said he played as if someone were stepping on his foot. Get over yourself Miles, this guy is wild and accessible to boot! (I hope Miles doesn't get me for that one.)
" Steal Your Jazz "
I'm also ambivalent about "free jazz". Even Ornette. I bought the "Beauty is a Rare Thing" box set solely on Garcia's recommendation- Jerry's passion for Ornette being well-known. I'll break it out every few years for a listen but I'm never sure I'm really "getting it". I saw him live a few years ago in LA and there was a mass exodus towards the exits during his set. Still, I seldom am bored listening to him and it seems like sincere, serious music to me. I can't say the same for Phish and Zappa......
That Bootleg Series "Tell Tale Signs" CD set where "Mississippi" and "Red River Shore" appear is my favorite thing Dylan has put out for years. I won't see the guy live; been burned too many times. I've defended his singing since 1964. but I now find his gargling growl unlistenable. I still love the guy, but...
just because a band can jam just don't do it for me. i love all periods of the dead, not just the early years. the band evolved, great art always does. i too love the rads. i think camille is one of the best guitarists out there. he never bores me, like so many others. thats probably my biggest issue with phish. its not their lyrics for me, i see lots of bands i like that i have never bothered to learn their lyrics, the music first has to hit me. phish always has bored me, esp trey. they just dont say anything. wsp too. i saw them with guitarist #1 and 3. nope, not my cup. music, like any art, has to hit you in the gut, in the soul. if i dig it, i'll follow it up. yonder, bore. one time i saw them, they were fine, playing songs, then to end their first set, they set out on a 15 min jam. yes, the kids started jumpin, so what? another band i love is nrbq. LOVE THEM!!! i could listen to big al play all day. they are like the rads, they play songs. rarely "jam". but they know its not about length. dont get me wrong, i love a band that can take the music somewhere, the problem with yonder, wsp, is that there flights dont say anything to me. jerry and the boys made 20 min seem like heaven. i could listen to phil, or bob, or jer, and it was like they were having a conversation with one another. as far as jazz, i love some of that 'free' stuff. i just found coltrane's ascention on cd. i love that album. blair, you would hate it. the entire album is one song, just music in your face! really cool stuff. its just personal taste. i don't listen to music 247, usually when i listen, i like to sit down, record or cd in hand, and listen. i'm all about lyrics, but what was interesting to me was the first time i saw dylan, in high school, it was his christian time, and his show i saw he did nothing classic. i knew nothing new, maybe gotta serve somebody, so i couldn't sing to any song. and if you've ever seen bob, if he plays a song you don't know, forget about trying to understand the lyrics! but i loved it! he had it for me. and to me some of his recent stuff is his best yet. mississippi, red river shore, i cant stop listening to them! i love 40 min dark stars and 2 min folk songs...if they resonate to me. sorry, phish, widespread, moe, umphries, mmw, yonder just dont have IT for me. oh, and the richard thompson talk here...i love me some richard. for those who love lyrics, he's the best! i have seen him acoustic and electric, both are winners. oh, and every jam band i mentioned, i've seen. some only once, some, like phish, a few. i guess i kept trying to dig them in some way, just didnt work for me.
blair, i love your blogs. i've been wanting to chime in here for a while, but had too much to say. i love your most recent post with our roots. i'll chime in at some point. and btw, thanks for mentioning the burrito bros cd that bear recorded. love it.
I understand your point Blair and feel the same way. That being said I have gone to Phish shows and Moe shows and had a great time. There is definitely something that happens between the audience and band at a "jamband" show that is often missing from other concerts. A certain type of connection or high level of attention or something. Thanks for doing the blog man.
It's a shame the Radiators are about to play their last few shows this weekend. While technically not a jam band (they don't really jam that much, just awesome solos interspersed in their songs), they are a band that has developed a deep connection with their fans. Probably because so many fans are also Deadheads, the feeling of community and connectedness at their shows is something amazing. Probably because of my addiction to the GD (first show was in 69), I often view an upcoming Rads show as nothing special. But when I go to a show, I am almost always totally blown away at one point or again and again by the incredible guitar playing of Camille Boudin and the tight synergy of the band. But Blair, if you think Kimock is too funky then forget about the Radiators. The best place to see them is in New Orleans, preferably at Tipitinas, with a hot sweaty crowd. That's where they seem to get the greasiest, funkiest soul stew going.
Most bands I see in NOLA like to jam. That comes from the jazz influence, I guess, and besides, it's just plain fun. I think most of them don't consider themselves "jam bands", but they sure do a lot of jamming.
That may be the greatest thing I took away from seeing the GD - the jazz approach to playing (and living) that includes making each moment new and interesting, whether you are playing the same song with the same people that you played a hundred times or you are playing a new song with new cats and you make it all up as you go.
And speaking of soul stew, Derrick and Susan T's new band is one of the best things going. Saw them at Wanee Fest not too long ago and was mightily impressed. And another band that showed heart and soul and improv skills was Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. I wasn't too sure what to expect from Plant since I was never a real big Zep fan, but he was humble and generous allowing the band to shine as much or more than himself. Of course the Allman Band was exceptional with Derrick and Warren et al, and they sure know how to jam!
Like many of us here, I can take it or leave it when it comes to WSP. I tried but I don't get it. Phish is way better, but their lyrics usually kill it for me. Face it, we are one spoiled group of music lovers. With Hunter's lyrics and the bands incredible musicianship, it's hard for anyone to live up to..
But since we live in the NOW, and that , sadly, was then, we are left with a whole bunch of great musicians making incredible, foot stompin', booty shakin', mind expanding music. Let the good times roll!