Disclaimer: The following is a rant that I’ve had in conversation with many friends (and enemies) over the past decade. I’ve never tried to articulate it in writing until now. I don’t mean to offend anyone, though I imagine this might offend someone. If you’re a fan of jam bands, I invite you to comment.
I’ve always been quite omnivorous when it comes to music - heavy metal, punk rock, “alternative,” classic rock, country, hip-hop, modern pop, blues, electronic music, jazz and classical all have representatives within my record and CD collections. And I always dread the question, “What kind of music do you listen to?” Because inevitably, I have to say, “Everything,” and that is one of the biggest cop-out answers ever. To me, that answer suggests that what you’re really saying is, “I’m too lazy to develop my own tastes in music so I just listen to whatever’s on the radio and hope for the best.”
And really, it’s not even accurate in my case, because there’s one genre of music that I absolutely cannot wrap my mind around — jam bands.
In college, I took a history of rock ’n’ roll class, which covered everything from Robert Johnson up to Nirvana, in varying degrees of intensity. Of course, The Grateful Dead came up. Our professor played a few Dead songs for the class one day, including a cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” If I’ve ever felt an urge to kill, it was while listening to this track. From the constipated vocal delivery to the out-of-tune guitar noodlings that sounded like something my 14-year-old self would have played on the guitar while half-awake at 3 a.m., nothing about the performance was redeemable. Thankfully, the professor stopped the song after a few minutes, because anything beyond that would have ruined one of my favorite Beatles songs forever.
I had never listened to a jam band before entering college in 2003. In high school in Okinawa, Japan, where my peers were an odd mix of military dependents from all over the U.S. and local Okinawans (I fell somewhere in between), it never came up. Most of my peers were listening to 50 Cent and OutKast, while I was delving deep into the punk and indie rock scenes of the 1980s. Once I moved to the Northeast, I was suddenly bombarded by Phish, Dave Matthews Band, moe., and of course, the Dead.
And I hated it. But I tried — I hung out with fans and listened to them rave about the awesome live performances and improvisations, and listened to the music for as long as I could stomach (usually less than a minute).
I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like it. I mean, I like improvisation in music - watching someone like Buddy Guy or B.B. King or Eric Clapton rip into a song live is an amazing experience. And I do enjoy the occasional jazz performance, especially Miles Davis or John Coltrane. I like the elements that make up jam band music - bluegrass, blues, R&B, rock, country.
About a month ago, I was stuck reviewing a jam band show in Albany. (I’m withholding the band's name to protect the innocent.) And it kind of hit me, something that I’d always felt and understood but hadn’t been able to articulate until just then - jam bands are lazy.
Oh, sure, they play long sets and tour and release albums and do the same things other bands do. They’re not lazy in that sense - they’re actually some of the hardest-working musicians out there, and I respect that. I do.
What I’m saying is that musically, they’re not challenging anyone. The songs push the same three or four chords over and over and over while people take turns noodling on their respective instruments over the music. To me, that’s not performing - that’s practicing your scales. And no one needs to see, or hear, that. At least, I don’t.
A good solo, in my mind, needs to be a journey. It should have a clear beginning, middle and end, a climax and a resolution. And you can get that during an improvisation, but it doesn’t always happen.
Every jam band song I’ve heard tends to go about it the same way - some variation on verse, chorus, verse, chorus, then mind-numbingly long solo section that’s usually played over the same parts the band has already established. Sometimes it swings back to a verse and chorus again. Sometimes it goes into another solo section after that, at which point I want to gouge out my ears and never hear again.
Doesn’t that get boring? I like some long songs, but I like long songs that GO somewhere. Twenty minutes of the same four chords over and over and over is treading water.
I guess I understand the trappings that come with the jam band scene. The sense of community. The hippie peace-love-understanding mentality. The drugs. More drugs.
But what is so appealing about the music? Maybe the die hard jam heads can explain it to me. What am I missing?
Brian McElhiney is a musician and music journalist living in Scotia, N.Y.
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