The Jamband Backlash: Where did Things Go Wrong?
Truth be told, Ive been interested in writing this piece for years now, however even at this point, with the idea in the back of my mind for years, I am no closer to figuring out what happened, when it became no longer cool to be a jamband. When I first thought of this topic, it stemmed from an argument I had with a friend in, I believe, 1998 after a show at New Yorks Bowery Ballroom, about whether MMW was in fact a jamband. I said they were and my friend vehemently denied that assertion. And thus, at least for me, a great debate was born and, subsequently, the umbrella analogy was born (more on that later). Thereafter, in my dozens of conversations with any number of musicians within the jamband world, I was consistently shocked to find out many of them flat out resented being labeled a jamband.
The real irony of this discussion is that the word Jamband has never actually been embraced per se, because it didnt always exist in the communitys vernacular for a long enough period of time for people to fully ingest it. There were always ideas of what comprised a Jamband, or what a Jamband was trying to do that other bands were not, however nobody spoke about them in those terms, or said they were going to see, say, God Street Wine, because they were a jamband. You just went because they were a damn fine band. But just because the word was not popularized yet, doesnt mean you didnt know exactly what you were seeing when you saw it.
I always look back fondly on the mid to late 90s in the Northeast. Whether it is in articles or within conversations with friends, I always remember that period of time as something special. It was a time when a great variety of bands were making truly incredible and exciting music in the live setting as well as the studio. You could walk into Wetlands, or Broadway Joes or The Haunt on any night and see great music. In fact, one band in particular, Mitchs Infidels, provided me with one of the single best live experiences Ive ever had in my life when they destroyed Broadway Joes in 1996, thrilling the sold out venue with their embodiment of what would come to be known as a jamband. These bands, however many existed, were just thrilled to be playing music live, to crowds that were happy to be seeing bands take chances on the stage. It was a relationship in the truest sense of the word. Each benefited from the others presence and nobody gave a second thought to anything else.
However, something happened on the way to the Promised Land. Jambands, as they would come to be known, got popular, in the loosest sense of the word. Phish moved into arenas full time, Blues Traveler and Dave Matthews took the airwaves by storm, and Widespread Panic increased its dominance in the south. The next thing we knew, bands were popping up all over the place subscribing to the formula these bands utilized. Not surprisingly, fans rejoiced and attendance soared, especially so after Phish took their hiatus in 2000. And why not? Fans were thirsty for more of this type of music. They were thirsty for more adventures and journeys via the music of these bands and it seemed as though there were plenty of bands to provide the fans with what they craved. Whether it was moe., or String Cheese Incident, there seemed to be plenty of bands to cater to fans craving live improvisation.
But again, something changed. As is the case with anything that gets popular, there is inevitably going to be a backlash, however undeserved it might seem to be to some. As the fanbase for this type of music grew, so did the number, and diversity, of bands providing the music for the people. Eventually, other styles of music were swallowed up by the jamband label, and its scene. At one point you could say that (take a deep breath for this one) a band with around four or five members on guitar, bass, drums and keys attempting to explore the outer reaches of their pre-written compositions through on-stage, guitar-led improvisation, while dancing between various styles of music, all the while subscribing to the tried and true live touring formula as exemplified by The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers, could and would be considered a jamband. Whether that was the bands intention or not was, and is, irrelevant. However, that is no longer the case.
By now, everyone is aware that the musical tastes of both the musicians and the fanbase changed. The New Deal, The Disco Biscuits and STS9 all represented the encroachment of electronica on the scene. Yonder Mountain, Hot Buttered Rum and the like all focused in on bluegrass influence on players subscribing to the live improvisational formula. And, perhaps most importantly for this discussion, MMW was embraced by jamband fans, leading to their being labeled as such, much to their own chagrin. And while John Medeski has said in the past they he doesnt consider MMW to be a jamband, one cannot deny that much of their popularity is due to their embracement by that scene. In fact, its hard to deny that they do indeed jam. No, its not guitar led wankery as some would say. But it is jamming nonetheless.
So where do we stand now? Well, with bands such as Karl Densons Tiny Universe, Addison Groove Project, Galactic, Derek Trucks Band, Les Claypools Flying Frog Brigade and The funky METERS all, to one degree or another, improvising on stage, performing shows frequented by jamband fans and having their activities followed by jamband publications, its not unreasonable to see how one might be confused. But the truth is its not really all that confusing at all if you just think of the umbrella.
At this point, what you sing about, what instruments you play, how often you tour and how old you are has become virtually irrelevant. At this point, one thing is left and, ironically, after all these years, its the single most important place one should focus on; the approach to the music. And the jamband or improvisational umbrella, essentially nothing more than a broad label for a diverse array of bands, is open wide enough to shelter several different types of bands, whether you are The Dave Matthews Band or RAQ.
Regardless of whether you play jazz, or funk, or rock, or jazz-funk, jamgrass, blueband or liveprogressiverockfunkjazz, does not matter. The umbrella is open wide enough for everyone, even if everyone doesnt necessarily want to get underneath. But the truth is, if you play honest music and exhibit a commitment to honest, on stage improvisation, then inevitably, you will be a jamband. Again, this applies to Karl Densons Tiny Universe as equally as it would to Govt Mule, both of whom may not consider themselves to be jambands per se, but both of whom exhibit the necessary traits. At this point, it seems the only reason one would not want to be considered a jamband is because it might box a band into a specific style and limit their appeal, fanbase or marketability. Newsflash: Your fifteen minute musical excursions have already done that. You have already put yourself in the category by playing the music youve chosen to play. All the fans are doing is describing what you are doing on stage. And its those fans that have, for the most part, helped make the careers of many of these bands. Jamband fans, for all their flaws, are incredibly attentive, incredibly devoted and are more than willing to allow the musicians to experiment, regardless of the outcome. And if you are going to experiment and you are going to jam, then jamband fans, and the associated title, will not be far behind.
Whether your base is jazz, or funk, or rock, jamming out makes you a jamband, not the label itself. Its just about time some bands got used to the fact that no matter how hard they try to deny it, they are, and probably always will be, a Jamband. Not that theres anything wrong with that.
As Ben Harper once said in an interview with Relix (cordially provided by Relixs Aaron Benor), the scene is a haven for any type of music that doesnt suck.
I could NOT agree with him more. I just wish you would as well.