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!)
Has anyone mentioned Akron/Family yet? (http://akronfamily.com)
These guys are definitely "fellow travelers" which you get a sense of from this quote taken from a recent interview with AK FAM guitarist Seth Olinsky: "Part of the creative process is that it doesn't know completion—it just knows creativity. It keeps creating, it keeps reinventing itself. It's more cyclical and just process-oriented. Look at all living things: nothing's static. There is no stasis in life." (http://www.undertheradarmag.com/interviews/akron_family)
I know a lot of folks around here probably won't like them due to their extremely chaotic and noisy style, but I have come to love them. As the Dead did when I first discovered them, Akron/Family has turned me onto a whole new level of understanding and appreciation of "what music is." They are fearless improvisers and masters of dynamics.
Now you can check out a lot of their recent live music at archive.org (http://www.archive.org/details/AkronFamily), but I do not see how you can possibly "get" this band until you experience a show live in person. Lots of crowd involvement with clapping, chanting, singing, and dancing with reckless abandon.
Recommended albums: "Love Is Simple" and "Set 'em Wild, Set 'em Free"
After Jerry's death, I wasn't into seeing too many "new" jam bands. I wish that I would have seen a few more shows during the 95-2001 period, especially Phil's band with Warren and Jimmy Herring, but I had different priorities during that period.
I saw Widespread Panic a few times from 93-98, but the show I saw that got me into seeing WSP shows was 2001-11-16, and it still sounds good today.
As far as the latest incarnation of WSP, this show from LA in '08 pretty much says it all:
Hope these get a listen from some folks.
I'd somehow failed to notice that Rhino had issued a deeeluxe version of Shoot Out the Lights. Question is, is the $40 price tag worth the live extras and whatever other doodads are in the set if one already owns the original vinyl and CD? I'd jump on it in a heartbeat at, say, $25 just for the live side. Hmmm...or Grrrrr....
I note in passing that I was just over on the Rhino site and noticed that there is at the moment a Listening Party for Shoot Out the Lights, for any that are interested, here. No lengthy jamming, but classic.
If Phish is a low rent rip-off of anyone, it is Zappa and not the Dead. That argument can be made- and being a fan of Phish and Zappa, I think I can make it- I just don't believe it.
The only connection- musically- I see between the Phish and the Dead are the embracing of Americana, either through originals or covers, in their live setting. The Dead frequented the outlaw country pool while Phish was more bluegrass oriented. They paid explicit respect to their influences and that was/is awesome. Everything else from lyrics to music to jamming styles is pretty different.
Like 'em or not, they are at least original...
How are Phish a low rent rip off, they are almost nothing like the grateful dead, different styles of music, completely different songs, phish's lyrics are weird, the only thing they have in common is that they have 'Heads' following them on tour, thats the only thing thats the same, everything else is different
Oh... and Dave Matthews?
Like my momma used to tell me, "If you don't have anything nice to say...." well, that's how I feel about Phish.
Let's just say I consider them a low rent rip-off, kinda like Kenny Wayne Shepard and Chris Duarte are to SRV.
Tea Leaf Green?