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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2002/07/23
by John Zinkand

The Drummonds Were Right

Everyones a critic and everyone knows a little bit more about the scene than you do. There are so many different views and opinions swirling around us all right now that it truly is hard to filter the good shit from the bad shit. And even thats not really a fair way to put it. This scene is just so open and diversified that what someone may feel is some very good shit indeed, another may feel is awful crap. The only real way to make a determination is to hear and see the band in question play live for yourself.
However, even witnessing a band live may give one an incomplete or inaccurate view of them depending on that persons own luck and attitude at a certain point in time. For example, I checked out moe. back in 93 and 94 and literally had no interest whatsoever. I thought they were a wannabe Phish attempting (but not quite delivering) to make intense sound sculptures out of quirky songwriting, weird lyrics, and dazzling instrumental prowess. I thought they failed miserably because, at the time, I was seeing machine-gun Trey rip lightning fast and amazingly powerful solos. And this was in addition to leading Phish into some of the most bizarre places through weird lyrics, eccentric song writing, strange stories, and off-the-wall stage antics. I stand steadfastly with my opinion that those early 90s Phish shows were some of the best live music experiences I will ever have. moe. paled in comparison. But time rolls on and things change.
Fast forward to about 1998 and I had little interest in what Phish was doing. I still caught the band when they came through and played at places like The Gorge in George, WA and Portland Meadows Raceway in Portland, OR, but the larger crowd forced me to see shows from further back and Phishs in your face and wacky style of old was mostly gone. Not to say I hated all of the bands later stuff, it was just becoming too big and seemingly diluted for me to enjoy as much. Their style was heading away from strange compositions and strong-headed Trey solos to more of a rave/techno feel with the band mostly working to create a collective soundscape with groove. I guess Im just a smaller show guy at heart, too. While I enjoy good music on any scale, Id much prefer to enjoy my live music in a smaller, more intimate setting. I like to see the band members interact with each other and the crowd first hand, not from a giant screen.
About this time, I met a new friend who had transplanted himself from the Boston area and he just happened to love moe., so I decide to give them another chance. My how things change! I saw moe. play a very high energy show at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, OR and my mind has been changed ever since. Gone were the predispositions I had when first seeing this band. There was no bias that these guys might not be as good as my other favorite band and I thoroughly enjoyed the show. Robs bass playing and on stage charisma led the whole thing but the drummers and guitar players were pretty damn good, too. They had improved over the years, no doubt about it, but if I had seen them with an open mind the first few times I tried them out, Im sure I would have dug them then, too. Since I didnt hold them up and expect them to compare to some other band I was seeing, I enjoyed their rockin style and very high energy show and have been seeing them play live any time they come through my area.
But if someone had asked me about moe. just a few weeks before I saw this show, they would have gotten my description of a fairly low-power band that tries to be sort of like Phish. While this opinion would be greatly misinformed and vastly untrue, thats what someone would have gotten from me. Thats why I believe that the best way to determine if you like a band or not is to see them live for yourself. What Ive learned in addition to this, however, is that you need to see the band in question as an original entity and not try to hold them up to any other of your favorite bands. You might end up having a skewed sense of reality which could then lead to you spewing uninformed negativity on other people when they ask, Have you ever seen this band?
Another example of this diversity and needing to decide which bands one likes in our current diverse scene on their own is the bluegrass genre. I like bluegrass. Like. Thats the key word here. I dont love it. Its not my favorite thing in the world. Im more of a funky or rockin jam with trippy effects that takes surprising turns and ends up in an improvisational fury that electrifies you down to your soul and causes the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck leaving you wondering how such a religious experience could have just happened type of jam fan. Bluegrass just doesnt provide this type of reaction FOR ME. I know and appreciate that other people have only the deepest well of gratitude for this style of music that touches their very soul in its beauty, speed, and dexterity.
Leftover Salmon was the first hair-ditty band (my not-so-affectionate name for the bluegrass style of playing) I ever saw play live. I liked their energy and the fast beats one could dance to all night long, but was always left feeling like I wanted things to slow down here and there and have some differently textured jams and grooves. What Salmon lacked in musical variation they more than made up with craziness. I would check out their shows and hear about Ganja growing on the mountain or walk out of the show while doing a group sing along of Rise up, wake-n-bake, early in the morning! Their wildness and obvious ability to have fun on stage kept me coming back for more. I liked this band very much and would recommend that folks go see them live even though I am not a huge fan of traditional bluegrass music. Whereas a traditional bluegrass music fan may have been very disappointed by Leftover Salmons untraditional, energized style.
Due to the influx of hair-ditty bands in the current jamband scene, I always need to ask what style of music any given band plays before I go see them live. I could ask some friend what Yonder Mountain is all about and get a reply of, These guys totally rock. They will blow you away! Now, if I dont dig a little deeper I could wind up deeply unsatisfied. I could find myself at their show enjoying their picking and great skills, but feeling kind of dissed because I was expecting a band that will totally rock. In my narrow and uniformed view of bluegrass, it is almost impossible for it to rock There are varying degrees of quality high-energy bluegrass, but none of it rocks. I may be in the mood to take in that style of show from time to time, but I always ask what style of music any given band is before I spend my hard earned concert dollar. This works the same for folks who might hate funk and think of it as way too repetitive. If they dont ask they could find themselves sitting bored at a Bernie Worrell show longing for a bluegrass jam that speeds up to incredible intensity, which, of course, will never happen at one of Bernies shows. If you attend a show based on a friends description only, make sure they describe things thoroughly so you pay for the show you really want to see.
With a scene as vibrant and colorful as the jam scene, its hard to have some sort of universal standard that could be used across the board to rate bands. There are bound to be conflicting views when we deal with genres and styles that range from rock, psychedelic, jazz, hip-hop, techno, bluegrass, old-timey, African, Latin, etc. As a jamband fan, one had to determine the specific style of music they really want to see on a given night. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to check it out first hand. Dont necessarily write off Yonder Mountain String Band as some bluegrass band and not go because youre not particularly fond of the genre. Maybe they are doing something you havent seen other bluegrass bands do yet. Along that same line of reasoning, see live music with an open mind. Dont see Trey Band expecting it to compare to Phish. It wont because they are two very different bands that do not play the same style of music. Help our scene grow and change by being an open-minded music fan. Its so much fun to diversify given all the wonderful opportunities to enjoy the many different styles of music our scene has to offer. It does, after all, take different strokes to move our jam band world.

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