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!)
"Mediocre"?? You may not like them and that's fine but they are far from "mediocre". You don't sell out 3 nights at Red Rocks if you are "mediocre". Sorry but I had to comment on that one. I will agree however that they are the loudest band I have ever heard. Really the only concert where I have to wear ear plugs. But "mediocre"???
"It's got no signs or dividing line and very few rules to guide"
I've wondered about the generation gap theory, but I'm younger than you and my thoughts have already been posted. I think it really just boils down to different strokes for different folks!
"Is maith an scéalaí an aimsir." Time is a great storyteller. -- Irish Proverb
Well, Blair - we are right on the same wavelength here.
My 18 year old son is on Cloud 9 because he gets to see Phish tonight. He got there through seeing Ratdog, Phil and Friends, and The Dead (2009) with me. We have seen a few others over the last few years and .moe was about the only "electric" jamband that got me. I saw Phish a couple years ago after his ride fell through and I agreed to drive him. Once I was there I figured I might as well go in. It was entertaining and fun but did not really hook me.
I have never seen String Cheese in person but would love to; I listen to a lot. I have experienced Railroad Earth - What an amazing treat! And I like Yonder Mountain but they don't quite click the switch.
Add to the mix: Greensky Bluegrass. Check out some live shows on Archive (Start with 7-17-09) and then their live CDs. Great originals, a strange selection of covers - from Salty Dog to Road to Nowhere - that never sound like novelty pieces, and jams, jams, jams. I just got to see them recently for the first time and I would put them on or at least near the level of Railroad Earth.
Railroad Earth and Greensky Bluegrass are as close as I can get to the feeling of the Grateful Dead shows. But, when I hear what so much rock and roll sounds like I love the idea that the jamband branch of the tree keeps growing from the roots that we all love so much - even when I am not crazy about the particular bands.
I agree with you there Garyfish..they are are the closest thing I have heard in music and spirit.
DAVID NELSON BAND!!!
Best band and fans in the land!
If want to listen to extended and inspired improvisation I listen to Jazz
If I want to listen to Americana and rock and roll...well there are many choices
But if I want both there is still only one place to go..the Grateful Dead
In the words of Dylan (happy birthday Bob) on Garcia
'There’s a lot of spaces and advances between The Carter Family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school… '
. I think you might be experiencing a generation gap. Let me explain. Im a Jam Band Hippie, a third generation deadhead. My first Grateful Dead show was April 3,1991. I was a college freshman in Georgia at the time. The jamband movement continued the touring lifestyle for those of us just getting our feet wet with the Grateful Dead. Phish was the band in the northeast and Panic was the band in the south. Panic's "Everyday" and Phish' s "Rift" were the albums that dominated my college experience and are psychedelic touchstones for me to this day. The Dead was playing huge places in the 90's and they would only be in the south for about a week each year in the spring. However, I could see three Panic shows, in three different towns all less than three hours away, on a weekend, and only miss a couple days of school. Tickets were between 15 and 20 dollars, the crowds were small, the shows were crazy and the cops didnt care . You felt like you were in on a secret that the rest of the world was missing out on. I can imagine this is what deadheads in the late sixties and early seventies must have felt. I only got into ten Grateful Dead shows, but Ive seen Widespread over 200 times. JB and the boys are now celebrating their 25th anniversary by playing some incredible runs in some amazing venues before taking a hiatus in 2012. So Blair, you should definitely go see them live before judging them as ordinary. If you are in the Bay Area, go see them at the Fox in Oakland. You wont regret it. As for that miracle, I've got your Red Rocks ticket if youre serious about it.
I loved Merl! What a great spirit he was--and a great player, obviously.
Yeah, I forgot about Dave Matthews. Another one I never quite "got," much as I tried. His success baffles me. I interviewed him and Emmylou Harris together a few years ago and I found him to be very charming and bright. (And I've had a crush on Emmylou forever!) But except for a song here and there, I haven't cared much for his music... It amazes me he was able to sell out stadiums year after year...
Along with all the Dead shows and all the above mentioned bands, I'd just like to mention and show some love for Merl Saunders! I don't know if that counts as a "jam band", but he was definitely a "fellow traveller"! The love and energy that happened at his concerts was amazing, and I'm sure he's up there in heaven jamming with Jerry right now. Any love out there for Merl?
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