Jam On The River, Great Plaza, Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia, PA- 5/25
Over the past decade the rise in popularity of electronic music in America has spawned dozens of EDM festivals across the country, but often times the headlining acts are mega-huge DJs and producers who offer little more than a fancy light show as the artists stand behind a MacBook, pressing buttons and turning knobs unconvincingly. Luckily for the diehard live music fans there have been a slew of bands that have managed to fuse improvisational jam-rock with an electronic sound, and these new genres have steadily built a devoted following. Jam On The River returned to the Delaware River in Philadelphia last Sunday after a 6-year hiatus, and managed to put together a full lineup of some of the current best names in livetronica, while mixing in plenty of local talent as well.
Despite being the biggest weekend for the Jersey shore points, Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing drew a young crowd of 20-somethings opting for riverfront scenery over the beach. A few mentioned that the show was the perfect excuse to skip the huge crowds and high bar prices at the shore. Sunny with highs in the 80s, the perfect weather had guys going shirtless and girls in bathing suit tops practicing their hula-hoop routines, giving a very festival-feel to the day. Local trio Grimace Federation got the music started just after 1 p.m., and as the afternoon wore on the crowd slowly began to fill in the concrete amphitheater.
When Conspirator – the side project of The Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner – took the stage the crowd seemed to thicken with fans eager to catch the Philly locals. Conspirator has managed to build their own fan base beyond that of the Biscuits’ faithful and I recognized plenty of faces from their previous night’s show at District N9ne. Where The Biscuits are renowned for their unique improvisational-rock, Conspirator serves as an outlet to focus more heavily on electronic production, which gives their songs a much more polished feeling with shorter improvised sections. Crisp and tight, they seem to follow the map more often than aimlessly wander. After their set Brownstein gave a heartfelt thanks to the crowd, reiterating how special it was to be back, not just in his hometown, but on the Jam On The River stage where the Disco Biscuits headlined the 2008 show before JOTR hit pause.
By the time the crew was setting up for Papadosio the sun beat mercilessly on our backs and the lore of a cold beer was too tempting to pass up. Somewhat reluctantly I went and found friends who had scrounged up some rare shade behind a food stand, posted up in anticipation of the final two acts, GRiZ and the headlining, Philly-based Lotus.
Of the six acts on the bill, Grant Kwiecinski AKA GRiZ was the lone solo performer and easily the most production-based artist in the lineup. An eclectic mixture of dubstep, electro, and glitch funk, GRiZ also plays a saxophone on top his hard-hitting beats (similar to that of his friend Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic) offering a truly live element to his music. You won’t find prerecorded or looped sax at a GRiZ show and Sunday was no exception. He started his set with a few of his slower songs, which seemed somewhat deliberate after the low-key jamming of Papadosio in the previous set. But by the time the sun was casting its long pre-dusk shadows, GRiZ had built the energy up to a full-fledged EDM banger with everyone’s hands raised and heads bobbing almost in unison as wailed on his saxophone like an electronic Clarence Clemons.
The last patches of light in the sky were fading by the time GRiZ said farewell, and as fans left the front rows for beverages or bathrooms a mad scramble ensued to reach the front of the amphitheater for the headliner and final act, Lotus. For many, Lotus was the act that took Jam On The River from a ‘maybe’ to a ‘must-attend’ and the anticipation was tangible in the minutes before they walked onstage to an eruption of cheers and “Fuck yeah!”s.
The Lotus live show is a thing to behold. Their setlists are always unique, never playing the same song two consecutive shows and rarely repeating a song from their last gig in that city; their newer songs all tested on the road before making it on an album, allowing fans to watch them change and evolve; and their old favorites heavily improvised so you never get the same version twice. Though their repertoire of songs are primarily written by twin brothers Luke and Jesse Miller, the essence of Lotus has always been the magic vibes the quintet produces in the moment onstage.
They opened with the upbeat synth-heavy “Harps” keeping up the energy from GRiZ before delving into the “jam” side of the evening’s name with the always classic “Wax.” Next came dreamy “The Surf” – one of the few songs to feature lyrics – evoking images of the ocean and the final destination of the river they played next to. Nearly every song of the set could be counted as a highlight depending on whom you asked. There was the rare treat of “Mikesnack,” an old favorite named for lead guitarist Mike Rempel, featuring a riff that sticks in your head for days after a show.
Lotus does seamless transitions as well as any, and “Mikesnack” bled into a Todd Terje cover, which then transitioned to the fast and funky “Tip of the Tongue.” Then of course there was “Greet the Mind,” a song that starts out with a low slow funky bass line. It quickly builds energy in the crowd while simultaneously compressing it until everything seems the size of an atom, and then when no more pressure is possible that atom explodes and the band is right back where they started, with that slow funky bass line, and the only thing to do is turn to your friends, say “wow” and smile.
Riverfront venues in Philadelphia unfortunately have an 11 p.m. curfew imposed on them, and after a perfect “Bush Pilot” Jesse Miller announced the band would play one more song. I was happy to see Luke Miller swing his guitar around to playing position, knowing we were about to get an emotional post-rock song to go out on. The familiar opening riff of “Gilded Age” rang out, a song that has popped up in their setlists quite often as of late, notably New Years Eve at the Electric Factory. “Gilded Age” is fast and loud with booming drums and duel guitars screeching a happy and catchy melody. When it was over we held our breath for a moment hoping maybe they’d surprise us all with an encore, but alas the house lights went on. We exhaled and filed to the exit, finding solace that even though we would have stayed for more, that last song was really the only way the show should have ended.