An Outsider's Guide to Jamband Culture

Like, What Is a Jamband?

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It’s Thursday night in New York, and I’m doing the schmooze-and-booze at one of the latest hot spots, paying more for drinks than I can afford but enjoying the eye candy. Striking up conversation with an attractive blonde, I casually acknowledge my profession—journalist—and notice her eyes widen. “But, like, what is a jamband?” she asks, taking a sip of her white wine as wrinkles of bewilderment form on her forehead.

Ah, yes, my favorite question. Sizing her up, I decide to go the short route: “Bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish and Widespread Panic.” I don’t care if people live under a rock, they’ve heard of The Grateful Dead and at least have a sense of what I mean. But it’s only that—an impression, an assumption, rather than an accurate idea. “Jamband” is a term that can be both positive and negative, loose but confining—just like the music.

The initial problem is in the word’s root: jam. Plenty of artists who jam aren’t associated with jambands: Wilco, Ani DiFranco, Tom Petty, even Bob Dylan. In these cases, “jam” means fairly tight song composition with minor improvisation. But in actual purpose, “jam” serves as a synonym for “improvise.” This is the element that takes hold of fans and gets them to willingly devote substantial parts of their lives in hot pursuit.

My parents were initially perplexed by my dying need to see three Grateful Dead shows within a five-day span my freshman year of high school. “Isn’t one enough?” they asked (as the blonde would later about my Phish habit). No, and here’s why:

Every show is different. I mean really different. You catch two nights of the Eagles reunion or two Coldplay shows in a row, and the song selection and arrangements will be very similar. Go to two Phish or Dead shows back to back, you won’t hear the same song twice, guaranteed. Both bands played six sets of music over two days this past August: 47 songs for Phish, 43 songs for The Dead. Besides other bands central to the genre like moe., The Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident and Gov’t Mule (to name but a few), no one else has enough songs in their current live rotation to regularly perform two sets of music at each concert they give and not repeat themselves the following night—or the next several nights, for that matter. Couple this with improvisational ability and technique like that of jazz musicians, and you hear songs routinely stretching out for 10 or 20 minutes, often segueing into one another. It’s a recipe for addiction.

Describing these band’s extended improvisations as noodling (which my attractive drinking companion and many others have), would be like saying spaghetti is the only kind of pasta. Sure The Dead can get noodle-y in their spacey, meandering jams but that’s their style. String Cheese Incident’s improvising, on the other hand, is lighter and airier, often with a large pinch of acoustic flavoring. moe. has a much fatter, wider sound that spirals up with energy as their dual guitars attack with a balls-to-the-wall intensity that takes its cues from hard rock. With a distinct Southern flavor, Widespread Panic puts its rock before its roll, delivering guitar-led jams that aren’t afraid to get dirty as they tumble around with the rest of the instruments. Self-described as “trance fusion,” The Disco Biscuits bring an electronic sensibility to their jamming. Meanwhile, Phish does it all, often in the space of one evening, their versatility being as much an attraction as their own complex, audience-friendly tunes.

“But the audience, they’re all dirty hippies that smell,” she smirks, a slightly devilish look in her eye. OK, fine, some are dirty and yes, some do smell. But hey, you try dancing for several hours, sweating profusely and not smelling. The crowd and scene surrounding jamband shows and festivals, particularly those featuring Phish and The Dead, is a distinctive one and certainly adds to the experience of attending a performance. Throngs shuffle down makeshift streets of vendors and solicitors hawking clothing, minerals, food, jewelry, beverages, glassware and drugs. Investment bankers decked out in polo shirts and topsiders rub elbows with dreadlocked, pierced and tattooed neo-hipsters whose hats are usually slightly ajar, shorts long and speech slang-strewn. Dogs bark, bottles break, babies bounce, money changes hands and a gamut of smells wafts in the air. It’s a party and, for the most part, everyone is smiling and happy—a nomadic and transient community of people who love music and a good time. This is tailgating at it’s best. There can certainly be a dark side to the peace, love and happiness, but the majority of fans enjoy the music scene (and all it encompasses) responsibly and safely.

She seems distracted now, glancing around the room in search of a friend or an escape. Act quickly, I think. “What’s cool, though, is that all these bands are totally down with other types of music.” A glimmer of hope appears in her eye. “Like, Kid Rock sat in with Phish and Gov’t Mule.” “I love Kid Rock,” she exclaims, pearly whites and gums being revealed like a Great White going in for the kill. “I do too,” I say, knowing it’s going to be an interesting night ahead.

Josh Baron is the executive editor of Relix magazine so, like, he knows what he’s talking about.