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!)
"I think it's great the jam bands can outrun the music industry's decline, and connect with their audiences."
Amen to that! Bands are having to make money the old fashioned way--on the road!
I enjoy listening to Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh playing together. It takes up all my listening time.There's not enough hours in the day for me to absorb much other improvisation "jam" music.I don't just listen to Grateful Dead. Come on man - I listen to the JGB too. I am very well rounded! I tried with Phish for years in the early 90s. This thread is timely, as I put in "A Picture of Nectar" for the first time in many years not long ago. Made it about 10 seconds into two or three songs and couldn't do anymore. Absolutely terrible, for me. I just get zero love back. I used to like Dave Matthews. How many people do you run into that say that? I run into a lot. "I used to like Dave Matthews." Why did we like him at all? It's embarassing to me now. I guess I listened for the drummer Carter. Some of the songs were good, too. But these days, I absolutely can't stand the guy's voice and absolutely abhor is obnoxious, contrived bleeding-heart liberal persona. I can't even stand to look at the guy, he bugs me so much. Any other time I have that I am not listening to Jerry I want a change of pace - to ROCK. Van Halen "Fair Warning" or something like that ...or something else entirely. Dylan, Michael Jackson, or my own music that I've played over the years ...anything but more "jam" guitar solos.
It all goes back to Garcia for me. There's no point in looking for substitutes, replacements, additions to what he did. That's just me. I want Garcia or I want something different - Stones, rock, metal, Steve Ray Vaughan. Something totally different in approach.
it's worth remembering how hard it is for any musician to 1) make a living playing music, 2) find and build an audience and 3) stay fresh and creative. I think its great the jam bands can outrun the music industry's decline, and connect with their audiences. So I think their scenes and tours are to some degree worth my support. As an aside, I am goin' to see Billy Bragg this summer, can't wait!!
More generally, Grateful Dead music (Hunter and all his collaborators) was great, in my view, due to equal parts fantastic song catalog and inspired, searching performances. Many Dead originals are rich and varied in tone and tempo and mood, such that the band itself was often challenged to sing the material well. The upward re-evaluation of so many Grateful Dead songs and their meaning to many kinds of people was an early "positive" outcome of Garcia's death. Would have happened eventually. As songwriters the Dead often pushed themselves to very high standards.
Jam bands? Making jazz noise, I'm all for that, along with jazz.
There is no-one who comes close to the Grateful Dead. Some people like like Phish, some like Widespread Panic but everybody likes the Dead. Not really a surprising conclusion to arrive at on the Grateful Dead website, but it does seem that there are no other bands that everybody gives a big thumbs-up to. Maybe the Grateful Dead vs. Phish discussion will be resolved on June 14 with the release of... "Grateful Dead vs. Phish". I confess I have absolutely no idea what this release is about, what it will contain or why it is even happening. I guess I will have to wait and see.
Here's my two cents. I'm a 200plus show veteran dating back to 1982, so for me nothing will ever compare to the Grateful Dead. They are in their own special catagory in my heart and soul. Having said that, I also really enjoy both Phish and Widespread Panic. To me they are sort of yin and yang. Phish is light-hearted goofy fun, and Widepread Panic's music to me is very beautiful, but in a dark way. Depending on my mood, either band can make me happy as a listening choice, and I really love them both in concert. A lot of Deadheads share Blair's opinion of these two bands, but I feel fortunate that I am not one of them.
Hey Undercover--thanks for pointing out the band CABINET!
Was not familiar with them but listening to them now on Archive--sweet!
I went to...four Phish shows (91, 92, 94) and you enjoyed myself. Coulda gove to a few others, but pussed out. energy yes, but not GD magic.
I have "A Live One" and "Hampton Comes Alive". Like macaroni and cheese for the ears. delicious, but not the aural gourmet smorgasbord that the GD cook up.
Overall Phish would be fun to see again, and I'll listen to Phish CDs again someday.
SCI a few years ago...snooze. LOS...eh. DMB...wtf??? DMB & DMBR. Everything else I'm too close minded to try.
Oh yeah, DSO has its moments, but when they did an "original setlist", they lost me.
"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."
Couldn't agree more. What an incredible album (cd, release, whatever it's called now).
I used to have an ongoing debate with a younger guy on the Phish v Dead thing. He gave me tapes, hauled me to a couple of shows, tried to TALK me into loving Phish...and it just didn't happen for me. Given that I'm not a fan, I actually have quite a few Phish shows sitting on the shelf...and sit they do. I did invest the "total immersion" time in an effort to "get it." Still didn't happen.
And honestly it does come down to the songs -- I love when Phish does a cover, but between the iffy lyrics and the mostly hookless melodies, I don't find myself humming or singing Phish songs, ever. Obviously, so painfully obvious that this is not the case with the Dead. I think that with the Dead, the jams serve the songs; with Phish, the songs are secondary...or maybe that isn't the case and they just aren't particularly good songwriters.
Richard Thompson -- yes, you live for those moments at shows when he cuts loose, and when he does, oh my! My favorite living singer-songwriter-guitarist, hands down.