Featured Column:Jambands Anonymous
Last month Bonnaroo announced their initial artist lineup. Much to the surprise of everyone who was not up to date with the rumor mill, it was nearly jamband-free. There were a few scattered around the edges, but the festival had redefined itself. No longer a jamband festival that had a few mainstream and alternative rock bands as for a change of pace, the jambands were now the exception. Even the two members of Phish represented are choosing lineups where improvisation is limited. A festival that showcased the best bands in the jambands world decides to move in into a more mainstream direction. Surely the message boards were clogged with cries of how Bonnaroo sold out.
That’s what makes this interesting. Instead of complaining, quite a few posters to Phish message boards are rejoicing the decision. People are thanking the promoters that there aren’t any "boring," "noodly" bands playing. On the surface at least, this sure is weird. If Coachella became a festival for acoustic singer-songwriters, NIN message boards wouldn’t be quite as excited. Eminem fans like rap, Madonna fans enjoy dance music, but fans of a jamband like to profess that they hate the genre with one or two exceptions. Sometimes, they’ll even redefine the term "jamband" so that their favorite band falls outside of the definition, e.g. "Umphrey’s is really a prog band, not a jamband."
Jambands fans largely fall into two camps. Those whose introduction to the scene came via a love for the Grateful Dead largely have a different reaction to those who started with Phish or Widespread Panic. The former group seems more accepting of the genre.
The reason is probably threefold. The Grateful Dead came directly out of San Francisco in the 60s, so you have to have some tolerance for hippy ideals and building a community around a music scene if you’re going to see them on a regular basis; both of those concepts are regularly mocked by the jambands haters. In terms of music, the Dead were a lot more influenced by bluegrass and folk than the progressive or southern rock of Phish and Panic respectively. Fans of the Dead do find it easier to have a niche with newer jambands as a result. Finally – and perhaps more obviously – people who came in via the Dead tend to skew older. Younger fans are more likely to imprint on the currently popular music as opposed to people who have already built up their tastes over the years; it’s harder to love that 20th genre as much as your first one.
I’ll admit my biases. My first love was the Grateful Dead and, while I had seen a few concerts before my first Dead show, they’re the ones that taught me how a concert "should" be. Those rules remain today:
While visuals can add something to a show, if a concert can’t be enjoyed listening to the music in the hallways, it’s not worth my time.
Stage banter should be used when the band actually has something to say, not to order us to dance in a particular way or to get a cheap cheer.
It’s not what they play, it’s how they play it.
Most importantly, the ultimate appeal of a concert is to have some moments where some incredible music is formed spontaneously. Knowing that the music seen at this moment might never get played again in quite the same way is the hook that keeps people coming back again and again.
It’s that last rule that makes me not able to understand the Bonnaroo alt-rock lineup. It might seem weird that someone who saw the Dead and Phish a combined 313 times finds it unusual to see any band more than once, but when I can see most of the lineup play locally during the year play full shows in better venues, what’s the temptation to travel to Tennessee, deal with the heat, the crowds, the traffic, the scheduling conflicts, the sound bleeding from stages, when I can see an extended version of the exact same show later in the year? The draw of Bonnaroo was the hope of seeing something that would never happen again. There isn’t the same appeal when the bands play the same set every night.
I suppose it’s hopeless for me. I’ve spent too much time in the Jambands universe and once there, it’s way too hard to go back. It’s made the past 18 months frustrating, as I haven’t been enjoying the jamband options and the cheesy antics of the other bands I attempted to see offended my sense of what makes a good concert. I definitely envied the people who were able to switch over to Radiohead and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
Fortunately, the worst seems over for me. Bonnaroo might be doing little for me, but Wakarusa had the opposite effect. Tea Leaf Green, Perpetual Groove, and Railroad Earth are starting to become intriguing. There’s a new wave of jambands out there and some of them are getting me to check tour date pages on a regular basis.
It may not be cool to admit this, but I should be honest to everyone here.
My name is David and I’m a jambands fan.
There I said it.
I feel so free now.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at