For reasons unbeknownst to me, the sherpas this season are clapping their hands and whistling to the rhythm of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” I think it has to do with a ringtone belonging to a certain Swedish web entrepreneur who was here on safari during the first of our three autumns. I can hear them doing it outside right now, the northern and southern flaps on my summer-yurt pinned back to admit the rejuvenating cross-breeze, this time of year bizarrely carrying salty sea air through some seven hundred miles of canyons and high mountain passes.
We’ll all be here for a few hours, before setting back to get the last shipments of my library from the small plateau where I had it airlifted from the port. It took five trips for xx, myself, and a train of five sherpas, each of us with a team of three kjdhff dogs bearing two sleds each to get my books up here. Sometimes there are expenses, and this time I’m sparing none. I’m taking a break to write a book about Yo La Tengo. Naturally, the mountains called.
Coming up in the chopper, I noticed—about a half-mile down from the plateau, a nice little valley where somebody could throw a pretty decent little jamband festival. If you could get the kids here, that is. It got me thinking, though, how much the jamband festival has become part of the American landscape, just as much as bluegrass or something equally below the mainstream radar. Which is to say: it’s something that occurs by design far from the bustling city centers, and outside the realm of the media’s roving eyes.
Jambands would be best compared to a regional American music, like bluegrass, if they weren’t from so many places. Like every genre, from country rock to NyQuill-fueled southern hip-hop, jambands were carved by the bizarre geologies of technology and culture. They are weird sea creatures who have adapted to life on land, able to make a living through the selling of copious product that changes frequently. But those forces have also left the jambands a bit bereft.
What was once radical turf buffeted by the forces of their particular modernity—cassettes, cheap gas, a music press largely uninterested in latter-day hippies—has become, essentially dry land. And there, the American jamband has found itself, oddly shaped organisms that can, in theory, survive as full-time working bands without traditional record sales or significant airplay, swinging with enough asexual rhythm to keep people actually dancing, but not in a salacious enough manner to worry nearby adults. In practice, it’s probably mostly mythological—how many working jambands could there really be?—but the surprise, really, is the scene’s endurance in the landscape. Perhaps its popularity peaked, but it’s not going anywhere.
Like it or not, this probably has to do exactly with the drug culture. It’s not that jamband music only sounds good on substances (Widespread Panic excepted), so much that jambands have ended up with the burden of being the semi-public liminal space for drug users. And, hey, that’s totally cool. The reason why jamband festivals still exist regularly isn’t because the music expresses something particularly urgent. Quite the opposite. Jambands—the kinds of band whose goal it is to play three-hour, two-set shows for dancing heads—are an expression of the same impulse as festivals: the wanting for time and space, to be free from life’s grind in a total way.
It has been said that the enclosed industrial green of a baseball or football stadium acts as a stand-in for the memory of distant rural fields uncluttered enough to invent things like baseball and football. The jamband scene operates with a similarly built-in nostalgia. It is not for tight pants and hit singles, one-blog wonders or classic LPs. It is about things that are long and loose: drives to the middle of nowhere, evenings spent chillin’ with friends on the porch, or just somebody’s living room. Jambands buy the listener time and time is precious and sweet.
Me? I’ve got places to be: a yurt to air out, path-brush to remove from the route to my fave star-clearing, books to haul up a mountain, words to underline, words to write. I might try to teach the sherpas some Akron/Family tunes while I’m at it. I’ll check in sometime. Might be a little.