Phishing for More – The Rise Of The Third Generation Jam Bands
When I first got “IT” with Phish in the Fall of ’93, it suddenly became all that I could listen to and it remained that way for a good four years. What did I listen to in college? I listened to Phish. Sure enough I had arrived with a plethora of CD’s running the gamut from The Samples to The Ramones. Nirvana and Pearl Jam to the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley. I had been a zealous fan of music ever since middle school and even though I had my favorites, I had never been into one band exclusively. I remember the advice a senior once gave me when I was a mere ninth grader – “To listen to one type of music is close minded; to listen to only one band is just plain stupid.” I have always agreed with his advice. Yet, once I discovered Phish, suddenly I couldn’t listen to anything else. Sure enough, I tried. But I was bored. I’d put on other CD’s and they’d be good. Some would even be great. But they weren’t Phish. Phish came along and made sounds that I had never heard before. Sounds that weren’t made by machines or studio wizardry. Lyrically Phish was a celebration of life; musically they were the very experience of life. Whereas other bands, even JAM bands, played music, Phish did something else. They took it to another level. Their jams didn’t just stretch on and on, or meander about….they redefined the concept of tension and release and they took you on a journey that would leave you off at a different point than where you began. They elevated you. Suddenly music had become the gospel. Life, death and all that lies in-between could be experienced in one good 90 minute set of Phish.
Thankfully Phish themselves were always quick to point out other bands. They pointed to Frank Zappa, Sun Ra, Santana, The Allman Brothers and Miles Davis. In interviews they’d reference everything from Joni Mitchell to The Velvet Underground to Pavement. Live they covered such classics as I Walk The Line by Johnny Cash to Duke Ellington jazz standards. Thirsty for anything and everything Phish, I went out and bought the albums on which these songs originally appeared. I went back in my CD collection and rediscovered albums by Little Feat and Led Zeppelin. I went to the record store and acquired such treats as The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. Some of these artists I knew and liked well before I first heard Phish – Hendrix, The Allmans, Pink Floyd; others I had never even heard of…people like Josh White or the Missionary Sisters. I liked Phish’s take on bluegrass and so I researched Bill Monroe, whose song “Uncle Pen” Phish did an excellent version of. I followed both the history books and Phish’s covers down a path that led me to bluegrass artists Earl Scruggs, Norman Blake and Del McCoury.
By exploring Phish’s references I found a lot of great and lasting music. The bands that I was led to by Phish were the classics. Some were forefathers of the current jam band scene; most notably Frank Zappa, Col. Bruce Hampton, The Allman Brothers and Santana. Some of these evolutionary predecessors were obvious – The Grateful Dead, for example, pioneered many aspects of Phish’s organizational structure while, on a much less obvious note, Miles Davis and Sun Ra both contributed enormous influence to the sounds, styles and even goals of the music that Phish was creating.
And from that, from such a synthesis of a century-plus dialectic of musical heritage, Phish has now firmly become a thesis in the dialectic, spawning many bands to follow suit…The Third-Generation Jam Bands.
While Phish pointed to the classics, I wanted to hear the current crop as well. Most of the contemporaries Phish pointed to were in entirely different musical worlds – Pavement, The Breeders, Allison Krause. And when they weren’t pointing to a different musical world, they were pointing to peers – Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, The Aquarium Rescue Unit – bands that had evolved around the same time as Phish. All of them were excellent, but none of them could really say that Phish was a point of influence in their own musical evolution. Rather, they were on the same tier of the dialectic as Phish themselves were. Even when Phish introduced their audience to the then unknown Dave Matthews Band and Medeski, Martin and Wood, these artists were more Phish’s peers than musical children.
And now a new chapter in music history is being written. While the original HORDE bands have all earned their degrees as jam bands, there is a whole new class that is still in school. They are the third generation of jam bands. The musical genres they embody range widely from bluegrass to funk to jazz to punk-rock. They are touring the country on the club circuit, relying heavily on tape trading and the internet. They form a strong bond with their audience, taking the homegrown grassroots approach. Their studio albums are secondary to their live shows and concert tapes. Their internet sites are sources of constant interaction with their fans – from announcing the latest tour dates to hosting message boards and even posting something themselves once in awhile. Fresh young jam bands are emerging everywhere, armed with all the lessons from their predecessors – before a band even has their second gig, it seems they’re trying to circulate soundboards from their first one. By the time a band has 10 people on their mailing list, they’re buying their own internet domain and setting up a web page.
A lot of these bands suck. And it’s easy to get sucked in…you go to a college party, or you go out to a bar with some friends and suddenly there’s a band on-stage covering “Mike’s Song” and pointlessly meandering for a good 15 minutes before launching into one of their originals – a funky upbeat tune with a hint of ska and a lot of silly lyrics. You dance, because they’re playing a good STYLE of music, and it is extremely danceable. You notice that already they have a taper in the audience. Maybe they’ve been around for a year…maybe a week. Before you start applauding them for being a “jam band”, sit down and really listen. Are they being innovative? Are they up onstage because they have something of their own to say, or are they up there simply reciting the classics, giving them to you second hand? When I hear a band play “Mike’s Song” they better damn well do something different with it, because otherwise I can always hop outside to my car and pop in Phish 11/19/92 Set II. But what is unique is to find a band that is doing, in clubs, what Phish was doing in them in 1988. Imagine walking into The Front in Burlington on 6/15/88 and hearing Phish for the first time as they played McGrupp and Fluffhead and then cover Good Times Bad Times and Whipping Post! Imagine, one band, playing an acappela tune called “I Didn’t Know,” nailing a jazz standard (“Take the A Train”) and playing a complicated piece that combined composition, improvisation and even a vocal jam all within one song (“You Enjoy Myself”)! You would leave that bar not only feeling satisfied, but almost as if you just witnessed something important take place; something much more meaningful than going to a bar, having a few drinks and dancing to a cool band. There are still bands out there, in the clubs, that can accomplish this. Thus it is imperative to distinguish between a great band versus a fun time. Any band can provide a fun time – and there is nothing wrong with that. Who doesn’t like to have a fun time? Just be careful not to confuse a band that can move your butt versus a band that can touch your soul.
The jam band scene is prospering right now and nothing could be better for fans of live music. As every band needs to start out somewhere, I do not mean to say that it is inexcusable if a band’s first gigs are sloppy and less than awe-inspiring. Of course they’re going to be sloppy! Of course they’re going to be filled with lackluster covers and mishaps and all the other embarrassing moments that occur when you are just learning how to walk. And it is the audiences job to encourage that, to help the band through their growing pains and to push the band to a step beyond. To the bands in this stage of development I offer nothing but encouragement and an emphatic “Hang in there!”
Many of these bands are diamonds in the rough – bands that have been inspired by Phish, by The Grateful Dead, by Col. Bruce Hampton, by Widespread Panic and these bands are trying to take that and somehow fit it into their own voice, using it as a reference point or as a footnote to their own chapter. While a lot of these bands have much maturing to do, given a supportive environment and an audience that lets them explore, they will come into their own. Some of these bands will go on to be the legends of the third generation of jam bands. And then some are already there – bands like moe., The Ominous Seapods and Leftover Salmon are all calling attention to the scene while bands like The Disco Biscuits, The Slip and Moonboot Lover are all, deservedly, next on the list.
Now that jam music is becoming popular, there’s a dangerous enemy to watch out for – mediocrity. If we support any band who comes along that attaches a couple minutes of meaningless guitar masturbation to all of their tunes then pretty soon the whole jam scene will be washed up like heavy metal or grunge is today. Once a band creates a unique sound and becomes popular with it, other bands are always going to be quick to imitate. And second-hand is always second-best. If these second-best bands rise to popularity based simply on the fact that they add little jams to their tunes and switch up their setlists a bit, then second-bests will flood the market. People will start to see a redundant conformity and forget why they liked this genre to begin with. The very-bests will get lost with the second and third bests and we will all drown in a camouflaged sea of clones. Yet there are plenty of very-bests out there. As great a band as Phish is, there are others too, with their own unique sound, pushing the limits and touching souls. Medeski Martin and Wood, Michael Ray and The Cosmic Krewe, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, The Jazz Mandolin Project, The Fiji Mariners and Gordon Stone are all worthy veterans in their own right. Interestingly enough, members of all of these acts have appeared on-stage with Phish and/or vice versa.
Meanwhile there are a decent number of bands across the country who are constantly swimming upwards and who, with the support of their audiences, are striving to reach this musical plateau.
It is partly your duty, as a music fan, to make sure they reach it. If it weren’t for a handful of dedicated music fans who came out to Nectars a couple times a month, Phish wouldn’t be the band they are today. By the same token, had those music fans devoted themselves to a lesser band, kids across the country might have been on Hootie and The Blowfish tour by now.
Support bands who are just learning how to walk. Constantly see bands which you’ve never seen before, for there’s a lot of treasure out there yet to be found. Just make sure that you’re not falling for fools gold, that’s all. Remember there are plenty of bands that can get into your head, but there are also bands out there that can actually pry it open and touch your soul. Find them. And whatever you do – demand more from your music.
Walk with light my friends,
Benjy Eisen is a roller-coaster engineer and a real-life proponent of the modern fork.