The Jammys Presented By TDK, Roseland Ballroom, NYC- 10/3
Relatively early on in the seven hour Jammys celebration, a group of men in shimmering suits crept onto the main stage of the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. Three of them, the three with sunglasses, sat in chairs, their hands resting politely on their legs, as the others began the introduction to the NOLA classic House of the Rising Sun. But when the Blind Boys themselves began to sing, it was a deep, chilling rendition of Amazing Grace that poured out, filling the room with force and conviction. The old masters of southern gospel turned more than a few heads, the strength of history and grace on their side, and that was before pedal steel guru, and recipients of the 2002 New Groove Jammy, Robert Randolph and the Family Band joined the Blind Boys of Alabama in what was a seemingly a match made in heaven. The combination of anointed hands, soul filled voices and celebratory backbeat spoke of something ineffable, but palpable nevertheless. It spoke of joy and faith and! knowledge- joy of life, faith of spirit and knowledge of history and orderThe term was bandied about on stage like an old toy uncovered. Conspirators in celebration, Dean Budnick and Peter Shapiro both spoke of roots music in the same breath as they spoke of improvisational music, and clearly it's an appropriate juxtaposition, not because pre-recording-era jug bands, or early jazz ensembles necessarily jammed in the way we now think of the act, but because there is an underlying connection, a far more basic connection. Roots music and jam music are, like all great art at its core, authentic- authentic in emotion and intent, in performance and experience. Even those who did not use the term stuck with the idea, from John Popper’s story of Garcia’s "powerful hair" and flurry of emotion, to Bob Weir’s flighty acceptance speech, as he received a Lifetime Achieve Award on behalf of the Grateful Dead, wherein he humbly downplayed the importance of the Dead and spoke of jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, but more so the older confluence of African music and European music. He even stopped to ponder just when the first musicians sat down to play, and realized that one has to listen, to really listen, to the others to understand how to play. Yes, the Jammys was a festival of roots.
But part of the authenticity of the jamband scene is that jambands are anything but purists, and their roots are spread all over the musical map. Mixing it up has always been central to the Jammys, putting mismatched performers together in alchemical experiments that are more often than not successful. Looking back at the first celebration’s combinations, they seem pretty tame. Les Claypool and the Disco Biscuits? Sco-live? Such combinations now seem commonplace. The jam world is open to all possibilities at all times; guest performers and musical risks are expected, even demanded by the fans. Even so, teaming DJ Logic with Robert Randolph and the Del McCoury Band to open the 2001 Jammys was pushing the limits. Again, however, it went off like magic. A desire for collaboration, a sense of history and the spirit of improvisation led many of the assembled musicians at the 2002 Jammys to bend the idea of roots music, to ask, "What are our musical roots?" The Blind Boys of Ala! bama was an obvious choice for Robert Randolph (they collaborated on the Blind Boys’ latest album), and it stayed close to a traditional interpretation of roots music. But moe.’s choice seemed far more personal. After plowing through Rebubula, the quintet stretched out as part of its own musical roots system joined in. Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma and Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult stepped in for an explosive version, not of Godzilla as many might have expected, but Don’t Fear the Reaper. Guitars all ablaze, the ensemble shook the rafters and there wasn’t a mouth in the room that didn’t sing along. To see Rob Derek lurching from side to side, pounding out bass notes that towered over Bloom, was to see a man connect with his own past.
Easily the most bizarre and comical collaboration of the night was Particle, joined by Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson of the B-52’s. The pair added vocals and jerky go-go dancing to straightforward versions of Planet Claire and Rock Lobster. Opening with Planet Claire was an interesting choice as many are familiar with the Frog Brigade versions, and thus the opportunity for something truly strange seemed lost. But as if in response to their own song choice, the impromptu sextet finished with an extended version of Love Shack. When California’s purveyors of space porn tore open the middle of the song, however, it was the pair of pop stars that seemed lost. As strange as it might have been, by the end there was some sense that Particle owes part of its sound to the New Wave movement, and was paying its respects. Similarly a number of musicians, including Fuzz, Hope Clayburn, Jessica Lurie and Reid Genauer, shared the side stage with the Tom Tom Club, eager to play alongside members of the Talking Heads. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band horns, which recently celebrated their 25th Anniversary elevated the music and perpetuated the broader theme, although some in attendance were not altogether drawn into these segments.
Part of jambands lack of puritanical thought and approach is that they take what has come before, and rather than conserve, use it as a resource. They make new sounds, new arrangements, new ideas, noting the past, but living in the present and looking toward the future. As such, much of the evening was comprised of breathtaking collaborations from the best performers on the scene. Derek Trucks and, recently adopted MTV star, John Mayer joined Robert Randolph for Good Times > Voodoo Chile, threatening set the stage on fire. Derek would also join in the extended Gov’t Mule set that opened with Bad Little Doggie > Thorazine Shuffle, Oteil Burbridge taking bass duties, and Danny Lewis lending support on keys. Both versions were tight and energetic, Oteil shining on the bad ass groove of the latter tune. Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard then joined for Beautifully Broken, his playing a highlight, as it always is when he joins the Mule. The mix and match ga! me continued as Stefan, Matt, and Lewis left and the entire Allman Brothers Band joined Warren for a tune, followed by the grouping of Andy Hess, another old friend of the Mule and John Scofield’s present bass player, Sco himself, ABB percussionist Marc Quinones and Trey Anastasio, who, incidentally took home both Album of the Year and Tour of the Year Jammys. That group worked out on the instrumental ScoMule, Trey dishing out a particularly fine solo. As Sco left, Derek joined once more, along with Greg Allman for Soulshine, which won song of the year based on the Mule performance from The Deep End Vol. I.
While that may seem like enough, there were still more musical highlights, including three songs from the duo of Leo Kotke and Mike Gordon, and a jazz-based super quartet featuring Sco, Skerik, Stanton Moore and Andy Hess. They dismantled Scofield’s R & B inspired Kool with big drums and hard blowing, and slinked through the old My Babe, Stanton’s loose, round sounds carrying the NOLA creep.
The clocked was well past one when music fan Bill Stites read his erudite speech that introduced the Grateful Dead and, despite Weir’s afore mentioned humility, gave them the reverence due as the grandfathers of the scene, and of modern improvisational music, where "the only certainty was to be found in the uncertain." The whole evening led up to that moment: many awards recipients, among them Trey, Warren, and representatives of Philzone.com, thanked the Dead community; Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont sent a video congratulations to Bob Weir; Dead tunes from Truckin’ to Stranger accompanied the nominees for each award category. The Grateful Dead is unquestionably the idiosyncratic roots music of the jam nation. Finally, sometime before two in the morning, Ratdog took the main stage for an incredibly tight musical suite, full of the layers and textures, tempo shifts and quick turns that have become the Dog’s calling card. Having sliced through Sugar Magnolia > Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Ashes and Glass > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower, moving the crowd, whose minds had been so overwhelmed, brutalized really, with music by that point, to dance again, Ratdog welcomed a host of guests for a final Lovelight > Gloria > Lovelight. Just about everyone in attendance was on one of the two stages, playing with unbridled ferocity, including Mike, Trey, Al Schnier, Robert Randolph, Hope, Jessica and Skerik, Matt Abts and John Popper among others. What was most amazing, however, was that they didn’t trainwreck. At one point the jam was just too wild and Bob held up his hand, and in an instant, what seemed like a thousand musicians stopped on a dime. At another point, he leaned over to Rob Wasserman, whose acoustic upright sounded better than most electric basses, and the pair began Gloria, the whole cast again following the former Warlock’s lead without a moment’s hesitation. Somehow it was those moments when the idea of roots music became truly salient as, like jam music, something bigger than its name: everyone there in the moment to pay homage to the road that was paved for them, and those who paved the road, and everyone was always looking forward.
One final note: the Grateful Dead and roots music were not the only themes of the evening. Time and again tribute was paid, by Dean and Peter with opening music, by fans and by a video message from John Bell, to Mikey Houser, whose death this summer was all too sudden, and all too soon, and which has left a wound that is all too tender.