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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2004/12/31
by John Zinkand

Torch Passing and Crown Battling

With the demise of Phish there has been a lot of talk lately about the passing of the jamband torch. When the Grateful Dead stopped playing in1995 due to the passing of Jerry, Phish had already built up huge momentum and was the heir apparent to the Grateful Dead. They already had a strong following, a well-loved canon of tunes, and even a mythology that connected some of their songs together as a story. They had already been playing the sheds in the summer up and down the east coast, so it was no surprise that they were "the next big thing" in the jamband scene, which was a fairly small scene at the time. If there was any doubt that Phish was seen as the new bearers of this allegorical jamband torch, when the Pranksters graced the stage with the band in Darien Lake in 1997, many folks were convinced.

Recently there has been talk of jambands fighting for ascendancy in our scene. This metaphor seems very inaccurate to me while passing of the torch is much more fitting. Our scene is known as brotherly, non-competitive, and non-materialistic. We live in the now and for the moment just like the improvisational music we love. With that being the case, how does one band fight against another one? Battles involve careful planning, not carefree improvisation. More often than fighting, I see bands in our scene helping out other bands, playing with other bands, and being friends with people in other bands.

After the Grateful Dead’s demise, Trey and Page sat in as some of Phil’s Phriends at one of the first Phil and Friends shows. This, along with the Pranksters gracing the Phish stage in Darien Lake, could be seen as a passing of the torch. Obviously the Grateful Dead were the founders and godfathers of the scene. By having Phish members sit in with his band, Phil gave the nod to Phish as a group he endorsed. Not that Phish necessarily needed a boost, but it did help them grow larger and become more accepted in some older jam circles.

Fast forward to today’s jamband scene and there’s really no band currently that is playing the summer sheds and has as big a following as Phish did when the Grateful Dead stopped playing. There’s moe., String Cheese, and the currently on hiatus Widespread Panic, but these bands seem to have hit plateaus. Phish has been off the road since the summer, but none of these bands have started playing arenas. No one knows for sure, but it is quite possible that no one band will make it to the top and play the arenas on a regular basis while donning the crown as king of the jambands. The scene has diversified so much from back in the mid-nineties. Now there are many differences in styles, genres, and flavors of jam music, that there may not be just one big band in the scene.

But of course the possibility is there for one of the younger bands to usurp the current big three. Recently there has been a lot of talk about Umphrey’s McGee struggling and fighting for the crown. They are a great band with serious chops, but there sound does have a side to it that is dark and heavy and may not have the mass appeal needed for them to draw arena-sized crowds. But again, the metaphor of fighting seems so inaccurate. For instance, they let moe. play during their set break at Bonnaroo. If they were really fighting against moe. for the title of grand poo-bahs of the jam scene, why would they let them band play during this high-profile and important show? Moe. let Umphrey’s play with them in Vegas and Umphrey’s was simply returning the favor. This type of behavior is very typical of the jamband scene, not cutthroat competition and back stabbing in a vehement struggle for the top. Even when Phish was still a band, Trey sat in with Widespread Panic in Seattle. There’s a marked lack of competitiveness in the scene. Bands just like to play with other bands as it opens them up to other styles of playing and different players.

The Grateful Dead’s influence is probably still the strongest as far as torch passing. Lately Phil seems to have split the torch up into little packets of fire and is handing them out to as many of the up-and-coming bands in the scene as possible. First he played with Trey and Page, and then he added Jimmy Herring as a long-standing partner to almost all of his projects. He also played with Vinyl in 1997 when they were still a very young and virtually unknown band on the scene. Maybe Phil is feeling older and is feeling a more urgent need to make sure the jam music legacy continues long after the demise of all the original members of the Grateful Dead. The three shows he played at the Warfield before Christmas had a strong theme of life, death, the after-life, and rebirth. And he chose a handful of new players including Steve Molitz from Particle on keys. Not to mention his recent sit in with Umphrey’s at the Great American Music Hall and the fact that they are slated to open his Mardi Gras show in February.
So who knows? Maybe Umphrey’s McGee will be the next big band in the scene, attracting thousands of partyin’ peeps to arenas. Maybe their minions will mill about and sell wares on Shakedown Street outside the venue. Or perhaps there will just be several theater level bands playing all over the country. Or it could be that a smaller more obscure band will step up and hit that nerve that resonates with many people. However things work out, jambands will be helping out one another and spreading music. They will be jamming out with one another and sitting in with one another. There will be very limited bickering, bantering, or bru-ha-ha-has. And if one band rises like cream to the top, it will be a natural and organic process, like most things in the jamband scene. Torches will blaze and torches will smolder, but torches will also be passed along as time marches on. Let me stand next to the fire.

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