Featured Column:Gratuitous Post-Jamboree #4
BRAIN TUBA: Gratuitous Post-Jamboree #4
Making up genre names is fun, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise, because arguing about them is even more fun. It is a parlor sport of social manners and pure peacocking, and I’m here to flash some feathers, yo. Actually, it’s just another way of talking about music, of being able to boil a musical idea down into two or three possibly-hyphenated words that are historically and descriptively articulate. And, like trying to collectively edit a Wikipedia page, the arguments can get pretty, uh, hairy (or maybe just dumb).
So, now — by spontaneous group consensus — there's this thing called "post-jam." Sounds pretty good, right? Plus, it speaks to a disaffected listener, like a promise that the practitioners have figured out the excesses of the jambands and dispensed with them. Like most genres when they were initially named, it is more self-analysis than musicological reasoning. One can't identify it by putting on a CD. What binds the echoing heartachers of My Morning Jacket, the Beatles revivalists of Dr. Dog, and the technicolor sexytime explosioneers of the Duo as post-jam bands (oddly, it now seems natural to re-separate the "jam" and "band") but not beaded hippie Devendra Banhart, gnarly improvisers Animal Collective, or spacious crooners TV on the Radio? Is it that the former groups' recordings come off as uplifting when added up? Or that their only concepts are to just be bands without any costumes or gimcracks? (But that’s not really true, either.) It all seems fairly arbitrary.
Historically, it does come at a particular moment, though, and sometimes that’s all one needs. For starters, the last major wave of jambands seems to have long since broken. String Cheese Incident’s future is uncertain. Trey Anastasio has returned to mortal status. With Phil Lesh’s retirement imminent, the Dead seem to be maybe, actually done. More, there hasn’t been a really new idea in the jamband scene since the Disco Biscuits and company integrated electronic music back at the turn of the century to tune the jambands into that hot early ’90s sound.
On the other side are the changes going on elsewhere in the music world. In the past, what divided the jamband scene and everybody else was that jambands made their money by touring, which was in opposition to the traditional strategy of making money mainly from record sales. But, with the industry not-so-suddenly flipped on its head by mp3s, record sales are far from a certainty, and so the formula changes: create albums and use them to promote your tours, tee-shirts, ringtones, and other marketable goods. What the post-jammers have figured out is how to sell themselves on stage, reestablishing the primacy of the live show. It shouldn't be surprising that the hippies (or are we post-hippies now?) are finding tons of new bands that fit their demands for surprise, drama, and group experience. All that is new, really, is the demand.
Where one could identify jambands by their genre-mashing (sort of a Rainbow Coalition '90s sorta sentiment, anyway) and their improvisation, the same cannot be said for any of the new saviors. Still, it shouldn't be forgotten that many of the first bands identified as jambands — the Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, and God Street Wine — barely sounded anything like that we now think of as even the most generic of nug-roasters. In the same way, Lester Bangs and others tagged tons of bands — ranging from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin to Sir Lord Baltimore — as "heavy metal" long before anything existed that we would identify as heavy metal today. But, like a hypothesis for an unproved equation, the notion took hold and, eventually, a real genre was born. The same process could be argued (and legitimately traced) for jambands, punk, indie rock, or pretty much any genre.
So, what we have here isn't so much a genre as an idea — and, really, not even so much an idea as a suspicion. But it seems like a useful one. After all, I don't cringe when I think about it (maybe because I don't know what it sounds like), and sounds at least a little contrarian (always good). More, it seems functional as a community-building tool, or just a way to talk about what happens now that one set of things has come sputtering to a halt and is changing shape. Who knows what's coming next? That's the beauty of jamming, isn't it? (Dude? Hello?)
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.