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Published: 2016/01/25
by Matt Nestor

Segues and Second Downs: Jambands and Sports

Sometime in the middle of the second set of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s New Year’s Eve show at the Fillmore Philly, the idea for this article was born. It was a rare acoustic JRAD set – a truly wonderful one that you should listen to – and Joe Russo looked over to Marco Benevento who then took one of his many jaw-dropping piano solos.

Think of Russo as the quarterback of this band, and Benevento as its star wide receiver. Think of Russo nodding at Benevento as a sort of short screen pass – once Benevento catches it, the outcome of the play is really in his hands. Marco’s solos are usually scintillating and occasionally goosebump-inducing. That is to say, he usually scores a touchdown when he gets the ball. That’s why he’s a star. But, let’s not forget this is a team game. No star running back or receiver ever succeeded without the help of great blocking and play-calling, which in this case is JRAD’s dynamite rhythm section.

If you’ve been following this analogy, you can see a jamband is at least a little bit like a sports team. And, not just any old sports team – we’re talking the equivalent of the Chicago Blackhawks or New England Patriots, but better. These teams rarely lose.

On the flip side, even the Patriots lost a couple Super Bowls. Jambands don’t always win.

One day after the JRAD show, I was in New York for Phish’s third of four shows at Madison Square Garden. If all jambands were a different team within a league, Phish would be my team. I scrutinize their playing much like I would my other favorite team, the Philadelphia Flyers. Midway through Phish’s second set on Friday, the band launched into a dynamic “Light” jam, which thoroughly explored several ideas. But as they moved toward the peak of the jam, something didn’t quite connect. It was as if Phish were the Flyers, moving the puck around well on the power play, but when it came time to bury the open shot, they missed the net. I’m sure if a neurologist studied my brain synapses during this “Light” jam, and compared them to when the Flyers almost score at the Wells Fargo Center, there would be some kind of cranial similarity. Some more examples from Phish’s New Year’s run: The “Tweezer” on January 2 was most definitely a goal/touchdown/500-foot home run, while the “Harry Hood” later in the same set was more like an own goal or a safety.

Still, the on-stage performance is just one part of this comparison between jambands and sports. However compelling it may be, it might not be enough to convince your bro friends that improvised music is worth their time.

Before we continue, let’s address the idea of changing someone’s mind about their music tastes. You might say there’s no point in trying to change someone’s opinion – if not listening to jambands makes them happy, why bother trying to change that? Normally, I’d agree. But if one part of this article was born from an epiphany about common threads between sports and jam music, the other part was inspired by a long-held disappointment with many of my friends’ close-mindedness about this music. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I bet I’m not alone with this feeling.

Now, let’s get to the nerdy stuff. In sports, we use statistics to measure performance. While a concert is a more subjective affair, and the real merit of a performance is generally up for debate, statistics still play a huge role in the jamband scene. As far back as the 70s, you can find Grateful Dead newsletters (in Relix, or elsewhere) which document the most played songs on a tour. The folks over at Phish.net love to geek out with Phish stats. With the Average Song Gap stat, they’ve even managed to come up with a metric that, at the very least, can instill a serious sense of FOMO in fans who can’t attend a show. Whether at Phish.net, jambands.com, Twitter, or some other source, fans check up on setlists the way basketball fans check on scores during the first rounds of March Madness.

Perhaps the most documented trait of jambands is their nomadic followings. Sports fans like to travel to see their teams as well, but not nearly on the level of these crazed “heads.” Even still, a sports team season ticket holder is kind of like the inverse of a traveling Deadhead. There aren’t too many “home games” on a band’s tour, so fans are forced to hit the road. When there are home games, like say, a four-night run at Madison Square Garden, many fans go to all four shows. The desire to see the team play live as many times as possible is there in both cases.

There are many jam fans who are also sports fans, and these people surely know the links between the two worlds, even if they aren’t aware of it. Like a live sporting event, a concert offers a shared experience, where you immediately have something in common with everyone around you. It’s easy to make conversation. It’s easy to find a common bond.

What do a Philadelphia Eagles game and a Phish concert have in common? Lots of things if you’ve been following along. But most importantly? They’re the last two places I high-fived strangers.

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