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My Jam Band Problem
Published on January 16, 2012 by guest author: Brian McElhiney

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.

Previous Posts by This Author: Giving Up On Reissues: When My Favorite Band Played Me For a Sucker

 

User Comments
ZB | January 17, 2012 16:03

You've clearly never listened to
Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin's Tower by the Dead
or
Stash or Divided Sky by Phish

I think Lazy describes every music act that isn't a Jam band.

Lets play the same verse chorus verse solo verse every single time. Yeah man the Red Hot Chili Peppers are so awesome!

Oh man the live version of In Rainbows was so amazing! It had Twangs instead of pops like on the CD!

a Jamband is a live experience, sure you know the songs, but the journey they are taking you are takes place over the course of a show...

A phish show will take from Bouncing around the room, which is a happy go lucky tune about going crazy in a dorm room. To my friend my friend has got a knife, to Cavern where a girl is gang raped by the universal creator.

and every single time they play that song there are unique twists and turns in the solos that you've never heard before. Maybe the lyrics will be sung in Japanese, maybe they'll play one song with the lyrics from another song... maybe they won't even finish the song and then during the encore finish it during the solo of another.

Also please find me a punk song that has more than 4 chords :P

ZB | January 17, 2012 16:03

You've clearly never listened to
Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin's Tower by the Dead
or
Stash or Divided Sky by Phish

I think Lazy describes every music act that isn't a Jam band.

Lets play the same verse chorus verse solo verse every single time. Yeah man the Red Hot Chili Peppers are so awesome!

Oh man the live version of In Rainbows was so amazing! It had Twangs instead of pops like on the CD!

a Jamband is a live experience, sure you know the songs, but the journey they are taking you are takes place over the course of a show...

A phish show will take from Bouncing around the room, which is a happy go lucky tune about going crazy in a dorm room. To my friend my friend has got a knife, to Cavern where a girl is gang raped by the universal creator.

and every single time they play that song there are unique twists and turns in the solos that you've never heard before. Maybe the lyrics will be sung in Japanese, maybe they'll play one song with the lyrics from another song... maybe they won't even finish the song and then during the encore finish it during the solo of another.

Also please find me a punk song that has more than 4 chords :P

Alec | January 17, 2012 16:54

I guess it takes true fans to notice the subtle twists in the performances. Maybe if all you listen to is jam bands playing the same songs over and over again for 20 minutes at a time any slight variation is mind blowing.

Alec | January 17, 2012 18:16

Further thoughts:

It isn't that the musicians are bad, but, at least to some ears, there's a musical sameness that is a turn off and comes across as bland and uninteresting. The music is monotonous and, yes, you could say the same of punk music, but punk music is fast, quick bursts of fun. Jam bands are long and meandering and either wear you down into loving them or wear you down into a deep slumber.

Ashley | January 17, 2012 18:21

When you ask a music education major what kind of music they listen to, you'll most likely get an answer with more than one part...

The first being, everything. For a musician or teacher, "everything" isn't always a cop out - sometimes it's pure honesty. Music teachers tend listen to everything in order to get a well-rounded idea of what is out there in order to better educate their students, and essentially, enhance their own personal tastes.

Which is the second part to that question - the personal music choices, listened to away from work. I could listen to rap in the classroom and teach a course on the flow of rhythm, but find it incredibly distasteful outside of education. I don't, but I could. Personally, I can spend an entire day listening to Gregorian Chant (or the sound track to Inception) - you, however, might listen to five minutes of it and think I were crazy..

The third answer would be what type of music they enjoyed performing. As a violinist, one would think my answer would be Classical - such composers as Mozart or Beethoven. True, but my preferred genre to perform: bluegrass or fiddle. And here's where I slightly contradict myself...

Do I want to spend a day listening to it? No. I admire the art and I enjoy bluegrass and fiddling here and there, but I couldn't see myself playing (or listening to) the same chords, same form, same style repeatedly for hours on end. Phish's Bouncing Around the Room is an example of this. I respect the song and it's stature as a choral classic. However, I dislike listening to it. Nothing against the band or their ability to perform, but something about the original - the wording, the repetition and the overall timbre of the song is underwhelming.

But why do I enjoy (bluegrass and fiddling)? It is a rush to perform - to know the song so well that you are able to develop and twist the melody or the structure in a way that makes it something entirely new. It's an indescribable feeling to be in the moment of performing or practicing and to come up with this great musical idea that you are not even aware of until you listen to yourself on playback. And that's what can make those four note chords great.. but it's all preference, musical knowledge, and the expectation that the performance has to be done well.

Ashley | January 17, 2012 18:27

When you ask a music education major what kind of music they listen to, you'll most likely get an answer with more than one part...

The first being, everything. For a musician or teacher, "everything" isn't always a cop out - sometimes it's pure honesty. Music teachers tend listen to everything in order to get a well-rounded idea of what is out there in order to better educate their students, and essentially, enhance their own personal tastes.

Which is the second part to that question - the personal music choices, listened to away from work. I could listen to rap in the classroom and teach a course on the flow of rhythm, but find it incredibly distasteful outside of education. I don't, but I could. Personally, I can spend an entire day listening to Gregorian Chant (or the sound track to Inception) - you, however, might listen to five minutes of it and think I were crazy..

The third answer would be what type of music they enjoyed performing. As a violinist, one would think my answer would be Classical - such composers as Mozart or Beethoven. True, but my preferred genre to perform: bluegrass or fiddle. And here's where I slightly contradict myself...

Do I want to spend a day listening to it? No. I admire the art and I enjoy bluegrass and fiddling here and there, but I couldn't see myself playing (or listening to) the same chords, same form, same style repeatedly for hours on end. Phish's Bouncing Around the Room is an example of this. I respect the song and it's stature as a choral classic. However, I dislike listening to it. Nothing against the band or their ability to perform, but something about the original - the wording, the repetition and the overall timbre of the song is underwhelming.

But why do I enjoy (bluegrass and fiddling)? It is a rush to perform - to know the song so well that you are able to develop and twist the melody or the structure in a way that makes it something entirely new. It's an indescribable feeling to be in the moment of performing or practicing and to come up with this great musical idea that you are not even aware of until you listen to yourself on playback. And that's what can make those four note chords great.. but it's all preference, musical knowledge, and the expectation that the performance has to be done well.

Quite possibly, the interest in jam bands could be lacking because there is something about the performance that is missing - or the missing link could be analyzed as far in depth as the texture of the music is displeasing to the ear and the simplicity of the chordal structure is a turn off. Such reasonings are why I choose not to listen to the genre; I like substance and complexity to the music I listen to in my spare time - something that will challenge my brain and please my musical palate.

And you won't find a punk song with more than four chords - because the genre is meant to be simple and repetitive, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be tweaked. I wonder what would happen if the meter were changed to 5/4 and an additional chord added. Maybe then, these jam bands sessions might actually have more appeal.

Brian | January 17, 2012 18:32

Everyone go listen to Fugazi NOW and stop saying punk only has four chords. NOW!

Tony Are | January 28, 2012 00:23

Yow--how did I miss this one? Well anyway, I have to say that Brian is right about this one--most jam bands are "lazy" in exactly the way he describes--and I blame a lot of that on the audience, who tend to prefer these bands sort of burbling away in the background so they can stay in their head without anything too jarring (or interesting) intruding on their inner space. The Allman Brothers, one of that great rock bands of all time, are a good example of a band that jams that awful way and there's a million lesser bands that do the same.

That said, he is pretty much wrong about both Phish and the Grateful Dead, neither of which typically jam that way (although since they will cover just about anything, you do get some pretty unsuitable experiments like "Hey Jude"). The Dead especially, when they were doing what they were supposed to, created "jams" as improvised composed pieces with beginnings, middles and ends and not just verse/chorus repetitions. Every Dead head out there can name some obscure concert recording to illustrate this, but I'll refer you to the famous "Dark Star" from the commercially-released 1969 album "Live Dead".
Although here's what REALLY drive me crazy about jam bands:
http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7217017/i-need-more-shows

Eric | February 12, 2013 14:12

I love this thread because I pretty much hold the same opinion of Jam Bands (for lack of a better term) and have similarly been a bit vexed in explaining, to others but also myself, exactly why I find them so annoying.

But a couple things to clarify the debate: I'd bet Brian (original poster) would agree that there are always exceptions to every rule; which means that one can have a problem with the general "genre" of Jam (er, Bands) while finding the occasional song here or there that they like. I'd even extend that to entire bands, or at least large parts of those bands body of work. I guess I'd find a middle ground btw Brian and Tony where I can acknowledge that Phish, and to a less frequent but notable extent, the Dead have produced some really great inventive music.

And this totally fits with the general defining rule of Jam Bands - that they're lazy. In other words: Phish and the Dead are composed of extremely talented musicians who are capable of some truly impressive improvisation, which, I think, is the main thing JB Fans (JBFs!) dig about this type of music.

OK so here's the thing. We gotta make some distinctions. No argument can be productive unless you carefully define what you're criticizing/defending.

So here's a thought, or maybe a QUESTION that might help distinguish the "Jam" genre that I think many folks implicitly dislike (which, by the way, I subjectively define as "bands that don't realize the Allman Brothers already did that thing you just did.... forty years ago")from other music that also features long, stem-winding songs that can go in any number of directions depending on the night/mood/etc...

Is Yo La Tengo a "Jam" band? And if not, how do they differ from the "typical" Jam Band, and is that difference the same with what I might nominate as the best Jam Band (Phish)?

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