I Get Why You Don't Get Jam Bands, but Here's Some Context

I Get Why You Don't Get Jam Bands, but Here's Some Context

There’s a hippie named Chuck who owns acreage somewhere outside of Millheim, Pennsylvania, or at least he did back in the mid-2000s when I lived in State College, some-twenty miles west of there. Technically, I guess, Chuck’s land was farmland. And technically, I suppose, Chuck was a farmer. He might have been a damn good farmer, but that was of little importance to the hundreds who descended on his farm once a year for central Pennsylvania’s most infamous acid-drenched jam band hoe-down.

“Chuck’s Farm”, as the event was conveniently called, was a sort-of Venn diagrammatic intersection of Woodstock and the “moon tower party” from Dazed and Confused. It wasn’t a ticketed event and as far as I remember there were no staff. Getting there wasn’t easy. Most people drove down Friday night after dark and directions to the farm always came word-of-mouth and involved driving several miles down an unlit country highway and slowing down at a certain mile marker to look for a dangling glow stick. You’d make a right onto a dirt road and drive a half mile up and over a hill, at which point you might begin to spot some wandering soul seekers (for the record: people on acid can often be found roaming the periphery of wherever it is they are “supposed to be”). As you’d keep driving and near the makeshift parking lot slash campground, you could begin to hear the garbled rumbling of bass and drums and shreddy, noodling lead guitar.

The “festival grounds” were hardly bucolic. Chuck kept the party contained to what I imagine was non-arable land, for good reason. You had to walk over another small dirt hill, through some light forest to get to the music. Inside of a half-acre clearing, the (two) stages were constructed out of stacked lumber or used shipping pallets, I’m not sure which, and framed overhead with PVC piping and blue tarp. Everything was powered by gasoline generators that ran loud enough to drown out the music if you stood next to one. The festival had been happening on the same weekend every year for many years at this point and must have required some amount of planning and operational foresight, but the layout and construction of it all made no indication of that.

The “festival grounds” were hardly bucolic.

A high-energy guy named Dave was in charge of sound - for both stages - and he did a hell of a job given the circumstances. You could most often see him hovering over a little Yamaha mixer thirty feet to stage right, headlamp on his forehead, cigarette barely clasping onto the edge of his lips, fiddling with knobs like he was a phantom member of the band. As with everything else at this festival, the sound system was teetering somewhere between DIY and broken. You got the sense that Dave was always one blown XLR adapter away from having to stop a band mid-set and run back into town. But if his demeanor was any indication, there was, in fact, nothing to worry about.

The attendees of Chuck’s Farm fell into four categories: Curious College Freshman, Formerly Curious College Upperclassmen, True Stoners, and Card-Carrying Jam Band Cognoscenti. The latter two categories were distinguishable from each other only by how much and what kind of drugs they did (a True Stoner, for example, loved whipits while a Jam Bander typically stuck to traditional psychedelics). The former two categories were distinguishable from each other primarily by attire and hair style (by my estimation it would take approximately two years, or six semesters, to grow a convincing set of dreadlocks from scratch).

// Photo: Bub Treaster | Facebook | 2011

// Photo: Bub Treaster | Facebook | 2011

The bands that played at Chuck’s Farm were mostly local outfits and, as you’ve probably ascertained by now, were mostly what I would consider jam bands. It may have been the dim stage lighting or the fact that I never could find a printed schedule, but the bands themselves were virtually interchangeable. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the bands shared members and occasionally multiple members from one group would guest with a different group for an entire set, making the entire thing feel like some sort of live demonstration of Theseus’s paradox. Exactly who happened to be playing was of little concern to the congregation though. Their itches were being scratched. Wailing guitars, polyrhythmic drum fills, saxophones modulating effortlessly over odd time signatures...it all spoke to these people. It spoke to me. There were moments when the music transcended everything technical that was happening on stage (warning: gonna get a little stoney baloney for a sec), moments when you could listen past the individual notes and hear the band as one unified instrument. In these moments, the experience became less musical and more spiritual (exhales).

Ok -- hold up. Let’s pause for a second and think about how we got here. How did we get here? I mean, like, how did this assortment of jam bands come to be and how are there enough of them and their fans in rural Pennsylvania to create an entire weekend-long music festival? Jam bands! Those corny noodling cult-groups with terrible, if any, singers and worse names (String Cheese Incident? c’mon..) If you’re like many people, you’ve kept a comfortable arms-length distance from this world. It doesn’t really make sense to you. The music sounds awful (see the “what Phish sounds like” memes) and the culture seems obsessed with drugs. Maybe once, out of bored curiosity, you Google’d “Phish” and listened to 20 seconds of a song. “I don’t have time for this” you might have thought, or more likely, “what the hell is this shit?” Let’s start with an abbreviated history.

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Maybe once, out of bored curiosity, you Google’d “Phish”

In 1962 a young man named Jerry Garcia is obsessed with bluegrass music. He starts a bluegrass band with his buddies in San Francisco, names it Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions (lmao), and starts playing the local bars. Some time around 1964, Garcia and his bandmates befriend neighborhood celebrity and LSD-aficionado Ken Kesey and begin attending his “Acid Test” parties. In July of 1965, the great Bob Dylan releases “Like a Rolling Stone”, his first song using electric instruments. Garcia’s jug band follow suit, ditching their acoustics for electric instrumentation. They rebrand and play their first show as The Warlocks at one of Kesey’s parties. As they fall deeper and deeper down the LSD rabbit hole, their music gets more and more zoned out. Long instrumental passages become the foci of their sets and the group dismisses premeditated song structure in favor of total improvisation. Later that year, they change their name to The Grateful Dead and the world’s first jam band is supposedly born.

I say “supposedly” because what this brief history lesson did not uncover were the countless preceding bands and artists who ultimately contributed just as much to the jam band sound of then and now. In the mid-1940s, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk started jamming into small apartments and clubs (pun very much intended), experimenting with a faster, more riff-based and improvisational style of jazz music that couldn’t be easily exploited by the big band mainstream. James Brown went platinum in 1962 with Live at the Apollo, the first successful live album and an immediate precursor to Brown’s new genre of music: funk. And in 1963, OG guitar noodler Lonnie Mack released The Wham of that Memphis Man, the first distinctly virtuosic Guitar Solo record.

If Jim Morrison’s brand is “The Lizard King”, Jerry’s is “The Goofy Uncle”.

But anyway, The Grateful Dead and their weird trippy noodling play perfectly into the counterculture revolution of the mid-1960s and not longer after, bands like The Allman Brothers Band, Cream and Pink Floyd start blasting off into their own intergalactic psychoacoustic voyages. Alongside a monumental socio-political renaissance and lots of LSD, it becomes definitively awesome to jam.

Unlike those other bands, though, The Grateful Dead never actually become that cool. They somehow remain on the cultural fringe, unable or unwilling to produce a song with mass commercial appeal and lacking in any sort of sex appeal. If Jim Morrison’s brand is “The Lizard King”, Jerry’s is “The Goofy Uncle”. Garcia and Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist, trade roles as lead vocalist but neither is particularly suited for the role. Bob has this awkward, impatient overexertion in his voice and Jerry has this pitchy nasal thing going on. In spite of this, people are connecting with The Grateful Dead. Their bluegrass-infused psychedelia resonates with much of blue-collar America, who have trouble connecting with glamorous sex icons like Morrison, Hendrix, and Daltry. And Garcia’s entire persona is oddly infectious. While Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant is on stage every night bare-chested and belting, seductively running his fingers through his beautiful blonde locks, Garcia is up there in blue jeans, grinning from ear to ear. They feel personable. They feel like family.

// Photo: Robert Altman | The Grateful Dead, San Francisco, CA, 1970

// Photo: Robert Altman | The Grateful Dead, San Francisco, CA, 1970

More and more young weirdos start showing up to their shows and a strange sui generis culture begins to form, complete with terminology and attire and traditions. It’s as if The Dead’s lack of cultural branding allows an entire group of humans to...brand themselves? Here is a band who is switched onto LSD, who sing beautiful lyrics despite not being able to sing, who gives zero fucks about their appearance, and who demands no attention of you at their shows. Have your own journey. You do you. We’ll be up here jamming.

Let me interrupt the history lesson for just a second. It’s worth noting at this point that The Grateful Dead, despite their uber-casual appearance and goofy demeanor, were world class musicians. And moreover, they had created a very unique sonic signature. Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart teamed up to create the world’s first dual-drummer attack. Phil Lesh, a former jazz trumpeter, played his bass like a lead instrument, dialing up a trebley tone and dancing around the fretboard a’la Charles Mingus. But probably the single most defining element of The Grateful Dead sound were Jerry’s larger-than-life, mind-enveloping guitar solos, long magnetic passages with a cadence and tone that resembled the beautiful belt of an orca whale. Simply put, no one played the guitar like Jerry.

Throughout the 1970s, The Dead continue touring and the community grows and grows and explosively grows. Fans begin following the band on tour, recording all of their shows and trading bootlegs in the parking lot. The thing truly becomes bigger than the band itself. And the shows become more and more mythological. The band hires a personal “acid cooker”, who in turn designs and builds the world’s largest and most insane-looking live sound system. The seventies roll on by and the band is still touring, like constantly. The 1980s come and go and they just keep truckin’. At this point, fans who saw The Warlocks at Kesey’s house are bringing their grandchildren to Grateful Dead shows.

// Photo: Kirk West | The Wall of Sound 1974

// Photo: Kirk West | The Wall of Sound 1974

// Photo: LIFE Picture Collections/Getty Images

// Photo: LIFE Picture Collections/Getty Images

// Photo: Jay Blakesberg/Invision for the Grateful Dead/AP Images | Santa Clara, CA, 2015

// Photo: Jay Blakesberg/Invision for the Grateful Dead/AP Images | Santa Clara, CA, 2015

Meanwhile (and bear with me, I’m just jammin’), at The University of Vermont, a group of students is playing Grateful Dead cover songs at local bars and campus events. The postmodernism of liberal academics begins to seep into their music and they start making some really wacky original concept-album shit, with titles like “Narration (Ride On A Multibeast)” and “Fluff’s Travels: Part 1-6”. Like their heroes, The Grateful Dead, they love to jam, they don’t look anything like rock stars, they can’t sing, and their guitar solos are otherworldly. But moreover, their deeply absurdist approach translates well to college students and the group starts gaining serious momentum. In 1991, the group starts promoting itself on message boards waaaaaaay before promoting yourself on the internet was a thing. With the help of the world wide web’s quick adoption, the group’s popularity skyrockets. The band was called Phish and their timing was impeccable.

Then, in 1995, following a lifelong struggle with drug addiction and diabetes, The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia dies of a heart attack. The deadhead community grieves heavily and a crowd of 25,000 show up to his memorial. The spiritual loss leaves a gargantuan void and with no more Grateful Dead, the community begin to look for the next best thing. Phish become the most immediate and obvious heirs to the throne but bands like Widespread Panic and Bela Fleck, with their outlet store fashion style, their Garcia-esque solos, and their “positive vibes” also step in to fill the void. A young generation of deadheads take it upon themselves to form jam bands of their own and with the help of internet message boards and websites like Jambase, the culture is reinvigorated. By the early-2000s, college towns and rural America are chock full of jam bands and jam band enthusiasts. Which is pretty much how we arrive at Chuck’s Farm in rural Pennsylvania on a Friday night with a few hundred hippies crowded around a stage of shipping palettes.

So at this point you’re probably thinking “cool history lesson, dude, but the music still sounds terrible”. Fair enough. Here’s the thing...you’re probably never going to like jam bands. It would be easy for me to go off about how understanding art requires patience and “you GOTTA check out Medeski Martin and Wood”. But it probably wouldn’t speak to you. The context is all wrong. You’re listening for songs and let me make one thing blatantly clear: most jam bands songs are pretty bad songs. And of course that’s because it’s not about songs - not in the traditional sense.

// Jerry Garcia

// Jerry Garcia

You see, jam bands are actually much more like sports teams than bands. Bands make songs for you to listen to in your Toyota Prius on the way to Trader Joe’s. Jam bands participate in live, unscripted events in front of an audience. Like sports, it’s all about the live event. It’s about watching a group of humans react, physically and mentally, on the spot, in front of a crowd. Unscripted entertainment. You gotta watch the game to enjoy the sport and that’s why your twenty second sampling of Phish left you confused and bored. Try watching twenty seconds of last year’s NBA finals.

Exhibit B, the way jam band fans speak about their bands is strikingly similar to the way sports fan talk about their teams. Deadheads exalt the “Europe ‘72 tour” the same way Chicagoans do “Ditka’s ‘85 Bears”. New members, like draft picks, endure a period of heavy scrutinization before the fan base either burns them at the proverbial stake or passionately adopts them (case in point: John Mayer is currently playing the role of “Jerry” with Dead & Company - the most recent iteration of The Grateful Dead - and in an absurd twist of events, the deadhead community has fallen head over heels for the guy). Sure, the same caliber of psycho-infatuation happens among boy band fans as well. But boy bands have the shelf life of a loaf of bread and their fans eventually turn 16 and discover Death Cab for Cutie, or whatever today’s Death Cab for Cutie is. Jam bands, on the other hand, are like institutions, many of them continuing to tour decades after conception, with or without the original members. They’re out there touring right now despite the fact that it has never been less cool to do what they do.

Still, the existential blunders of an eighteen year old in this country have not disappeared, nor has the appeal of the colorful underground.

Chuck’s Farm doesn’t happen anymore, or so I’m told. Perhaps Chuck got tired of cleaning up afterwards or maybe he sold the farm and moved to Fiji, I have no idea. Personally, I haven’t been to a jam band show since my college years. I write and produce music that has never been classified as jam band music. As someone who has mostly existed outside of the jam world, both musically and socially, I get why you don’t get jam bands. To be fair, a lot of the criticisms are valid. Certainly the scene overextended itself and overstayed its welcome. The Grateful Dead, Phish? Cool. Hundreds and hundreds of other depthless editions over the course of 50+ years? It’s just not sustainable with any integrity. In terms of current cultural relevance, jam bands are as good as dead (boom). Still, the existential blunders of an eighteen year old in this country have not disappeared, nor has the appeal of the colorful underground. I would have to imagine that people will always manage to find themselves through music. I would have to imagine that young women and men will always be game to drive twenty-five miles in the dark through the middle of bumfuck nowhere with a gas station headlamp and no itinerary and not enough layers of clothing and a calculus exam on Monday, in search of something miraculous.

Dan Vidmar, Shy Girls


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About Shy Girls

Shy Girls aka Dan Vidmar first came to attention in 2013 with his slow burning, sax-tinged “Under Attack,” followed by the release of his buzzed-about Timeshare EP, subsequent 4WZ mixtape and - most recently - the progressive and cinematic opus Salt, which was his full-length debut. Vidmar has collaborated with artists such as Cyril Hahn, Tei Shi, Rome Fortune, Junglepussy, and ODESZA, and has toured with HAIM, Little Dragon, and Maxwell.