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Published: 2003/11/28
by Jim Murray

Fresh Perspectives

What a horrible time of year this has suddenly become; the perennial demise of that Boston baseball team has once again left us out to dry as the tundra begins to spread itself out over the belly of our New England. The winter season looms increasingly closer, carrying forth the all too familiar senses of Dickensian drear and despair, a time of stagnancy and shivers in the face of shorter days and bitter chill.

But I digress. Eternal optimist that I am (why else would I root so blindly for the Red Sox?), perhaps its of no use complaining, and certainly a bit vain to equate the quality of one's life with seasonal change. Nevertheless, I beg your pardon. In these drab winter months, it's very helpful to have something to feed off of.

Which is why, after two months off from the live circuit, I am incredibly excited to be seeing Medeski, Martin, and Wood and moe. on consecutive nights this week.

With all the anticipation of these past few days, it was impossible not to be thinking about music— what it all means, its relevance, and the wingspan of its influence over its listener (namely, this writer.) It was satisfying, but exhausting, as it became quickly apparent that there was no lack of subjects with which to delve into.

It only seemed fitting to start from the top.

The process of deciphering this label of "jamband" is one that is concurrently engaging and wearisome, for fan or critic and musician alike. It is a lazy nametag, and there are of course great dangers in pigeonholing. But for those of us in the know, the "jamband" clichffers great advantages. That somehow, even after Bonnaroo and other festivals of its ilk, it is still our little secret. That the word itself provides shelter from the malice of popular culture, that it holds a cache of values we privately relish and want to keep as ours. That there is a movement happening here and there but not everywhere, and perhaps it is best that way.

To rightly translate what this all means, though, it is interesting to consider the view from the outside looking in. It all started last weekend. I was sharing some musical thoughts with a good friend who has little knowledge of, and no allegiance to the jam scene. I was trying to explain to him the formula of finding my own adrenaline, and the great rewards in finding that release deep within a song. Like, for instance, at the thirteenth minute of a given Tweezer. There is more satisfaction, I argued, with digging in deep and earning the release.

As a hard rock enthusiast, he respectfully disagreed, suggesting that he had neither the time nor the patience for that sort. His buzz, he explained, was founded upon the relentlessness and speed of the attack. No matter how passionately I argued, he would not change his stance. It got me so frustrated that I set off with him in order to establish some sort of compromise between us. As passionate lovers of music, I figured we owed ourselves as much.

Soon enough we came to terms on an "adrenaline" factor, and decided that as long as there is a genuine emotional response to music it is fruitless to debate about which approach is better or worse. There is a relationship between taste and personality that perhaps cannot be changed; emotionally we are all married to our music and we should celebrate that commonality. And so ended a debate that could have gone long into the night. To cap it off, we made an agreement that sometime soon I would see Sevendust, and he Phish.

What irked me was that all too often as lovers of jam music, we can be as narrow-minded as those we suspiciously view as "mainstream." Naturally, I began thinking more and more about all the great music I listen to outside of our quietly elite scene. Only two months ago, for instance, I had the privilege of seeing Paul van Dyk spin in Boston. It was fascinating to see the emotive and spontaneous manner in which he performed, and it reminded me quite frankly of the onstage philosophies of many of our own bands. My own collection of CD's spans from Elliot Smith to Wilco to Nine Inch Nails and the Rolling Stones, with most everything past and present in between. Driving down the highway I'm just as inclined to pump my first to an Irish traditional session as I am to bounce to Latin rhythms, or pause for a minute to explore the fascinating sounds of Middle Eastern techno.

What defines a jamband? Spontaneity? Adventure? Integrity? Risk? Extended improvisation? It bothered me to think about all of the music I've enjoyed that shares many of these fine qualities but cannot be considered a jamband in the whole sense of the word. It became a personal priority to bridge that gap.

The fact of the matter is that there is an abundance of music outside this jamband thing that can hold its own against the ugliness of mainstream. While it may not fit our particular tag there is much to learn outside the box, as I am certain there is much for the outside to learn from our jamband world. Just ask Claypool.

It is nice to have an identity, and for better or worse, jamband is the fix. But it is easy to be paranoid about the outside as a whole, when many of its components could be absorbed usefully into the mass of jam nation. So perhaps there is more health and wealth in embracing our scene proudly but not pretentiously.

Call me devil's advocate, but remember I do consider myself privileged to be in on the secret. After all, Phish tickets are in the mail, and MMW will be tearing up the stage in only a couple of hours. Spring ahead.

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