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!)
Let me add that the Dead had "gravitas".
I have a strong appreciation for the songwriting of the GD. Hunter is the best. It's the grounding in the literary tradition I think that makes it so special. He is a very literate guy and it shows. And the music-well what can you say-it can be very deep, it can be oldtimey and old timey weird, it can be joyous, can be raucous and all of the above in a single jam-not to mention jazzy, fusiony, and country. It embodies some of the Bohemian tradition also. I also enjoy WSP and Derek Trucks. With WSP I like alot of the songwriting, especially John Bell's stuff. I like their musicality and I appreciate their Southern perspective on things. They have some deeply interesting music and I can't stop listening to their latest studio album.
I have tried Phish many times...just downloaded this last weekend run at Bethel Woods and listening now.......you nailed it on the head Blair...the songcraft isn't there.......Thank Heavens for HUNTER!!!!
Furthur is OK....(boo's from the audience, right?...lol)...they still sound a 'bit off' to me whereas Ratdog after 2003 til the last show friggin' rocked! Bobby & the boys GOT IT!!! GET BACK TOGETHER!!!
I didn't read thru all the posts but what about Jemimah Puddleduck? Good ole MK can tear it up with the best of 'em.....with JT or Mookie, Bob & Billy Lee......a GREAT night! The show in Santa Cruz with Robin was great and especially the 5-6-11 San Diego show...pure magic!
My preference on the jam bands is for the ones with a Dead connection....like you said, the others are 'fellow travelers'
..even a blind man knows when the sun is shinin'...you can feel it!..
Nice job as always Blair.
I did like the jams on Trey's solo album Shine.
Also, he played well with Bobby at the ten year
Jerry memorial at the Greeks in Berkeley '05.
Otherwise, I am right there with you.
My Story is long and adventurous. Im a "Touchhead". Please dont hurt me. Seriously, though, I got on the bus relatively late and loved it. The Dead are the Best. No Question about that. After Jerry died, I need to find something new. I saw all the Dead projects over the years and really enjoyed them(Furthur is amazing) but I still wanted to find the next coming as you will. I saw just about all of them. Allmans (OK, I saw them before Jerry died), Phish, Kimock, Dave Nelson Band, Moe, Max Creek, Govt Mule, Railroad Earth, Umphry's McGee and Panic. While Max Creek and David Nelson were amazing, WSP is the one that finally grabbed me. I think I would still be into Max Creek if I still lived on the East(Syracuse) coast but I would never have discovered Dave Nelson if I hadnt moved west (Portland). Panic is amazing right now and they are tearing it up. I have tickets to 5 shows in a month. Cannot. wait. Blair, you got to see them once before you write them off. Case in point, I wrote off the Grateful Dead until I was dragged to my first show. You just never know
This is an interesting blog Blair...
I am a long time Widespread Panic fan (they actually got me into listening to the Grateful Dead so I could better understand their roots...not to mention countless of other bands/artists they introduced me to).
I think their approach back in the Houser days was really unique. Mikey by no means will ever be considered the "greatest" technical guitarist but he had a very unique style and use of effects (specifically a volume pedal). Kind of interesting because you talk about your love for U2 and the Edge is someone who relies heavily on effects. Don't get me wrong the Edge and Houser are apples and oranges. But the effects/sound/tone certainly impact the over song or jam. Houser I consider someone to be a very subtle guitar player who could end up melting your face in very surprising places.
Its also tough if you haven't seen some of the bands you mentioned live. Back in the 90's I spent countless evenings on the rail watching WSP perform their magig
In terms of lyrics I think folks need to consider generational and geographical locations in terms of song writing.
I suggest you check out their Archive series, specifically the Huntsville, Montreal and Johnson City shows.
Obviously you are familiar with Jimmy Herring and the band is really tearing it up right now during their 25th Anniversary. Jimmy WSP is still great, different but great.
...watching that video of "Divided Sky" actually reminded me of something I DON'T Like about Phish--their tendency to work in really short melodic/rhythmic ideas. Like Zappa, they like to have radical tempo and key shifts in relatively short spaces, rather than cruising naturally from one idea to the next. You might say, 'well, how about something like 'Help-Slip-Frank' or 'Stronger Than Dirt.' Isn't that the same?" I don't think so. The way those Dead tunes are constructed, one section flows coherently one one to the next, even though one might involve a long, loose improvisatory flight and another a tight and precise rhythmic attack (think of the two or three parts of "Slipknot"). The Phish stuff feels almost random to me--changes for the sake of changes without an underlying logic. I liked the soft, lyrical part in the middle, but the rest of it, again, was like that English prog rock stuff I really don't care for. It's just a taste thing with me. I never cared for Yes or ELP or (most) Genesis. I know plenty of people who love those bands; more power to 'em; but not my thing...
...would be better with no vocals... a little too Yes/prog rock for my tastes, but with some nice moments, to be sure...