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Jam bands are musical groups whose live albums and concerts relate to a unique fan culture that began in the 1960s with The Grateful Dead, and continued in the 1990s with bands like Dispatch. The performances of these bands often feature extended musical improvisation ("jams") over rhythmic grooves and chord patterns, and long sets of music that cross genre boundaries.
While the seminal group The Grateful Dead are categorized as psychedelic rock, by the 1990s the term "jam band" was being used for groups playing a variety of rock-related genres, including blues, country music, folk music, and funk. Today the term even includes some groups completely outside of rock, such as those playing world music, electronic music, progressive bluegrass, and jazz fusion.
In the 1980s, The Grateful Dead's fan base included a large core group which followed their tours from show to show. These fans (who were known as "Deadheads") developed a sense of community and loyalty. In the 1990s, the band Phish began to attract this fan base. The term "jam band" was first used regarding Grateful Dead and Phish culture in the 1990s. In 1998 Dean Budnick wrote the first book devoted to the subject, entitled Jam Bands. He founded Jambands.com later that year and while he is often credited with creating the term, in his second book on the subject, 2004's Jambands: A Complete Guide to the Players, Music & Scene, he explains that he only popularized it.
Rolling Stone magazine asserted in a 2004 biography that Phish "was the living, breathing, noodling definition of the term" jam band, in that it became a "cultural phenomenon, followed across the country from summer shed to summer shed by thousands of new-generation hippies and hacky-sack enthusiasts, and spawning a new wave of bands oriented around group improvisation and super-extended grooves." Another term for "jam band music" used in the 1990s was "Bay Rock". It was coined by the founder of Relix magazine, Les Kippel, as a reference to the 1960s San Francisco Bay Area music scene, which included The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, among many others.
By the late 1990s, the types of jam bands had grown so that the term became quite broad, as exemplified by the definition written by Dean Budnick, which appeared in the program for the first annual Jammy Awards in 2000 (Budnick co-created the show with Wetlands Preserve owner Peter Shapiro).
|“||What Is a Jam Band? |
Please cast aside any preconceptions that this phrase may evoke. The term, as it is commonly used today, references a rich palette of sounds and textures. These groups share a collective penchant for improvisation, a commitment to songcraft and a propensity to cross genre boundaries, drawing from a range of traditions including blues, bluegrass, funk, jazz, rock, psychedelia and even techno. In addition, the jam bands of today are unified by the nimble ears of their receptive listeners.
Although in 2007 the term may have been used to describe nearly any cross-genre band, festival band, or improvisational band, the term retains an affinity to Grateful Dead-like bands such as Phish. Andy Gadiel, the initial webmaster of Jambands.com, who went on to found JamBase, states in Budnick's 2004 edition of Jambands that the music "...had a link that would not only unite bands themselves but also a very large community around them."
By the late 1990s use of the term jam band also became ambiguous. An essay at jamband.com suggested that any band of which a primary band such as Phish has done a cover of be included as jam band. The example was including New York post-punk band Talking Heads after Phish performed a cover of Remain In Light. A broad sense of the term also became used retroactively in jam band circles for bands such as Cream who for decades were categorized as a "power-trio" and "psychedelic rock" and who when active were largely unrelated to the Grateful Dead. In his October 2000 column on the subject for jambands.com, Dan Greenhaus attempted to explain the evolution of a jam band as such:
"At this point, what you sing about, what instruments you play, how often you tour and how old you are has become virtually irrelevant. At this point, one thing is left and, ironically, after all these years, it’s the single most important place one should focus on; the approach to the music. And the jamband or improvisational umbrella, essentially nothing more than a broad label for a diverse array of bands, is open wide enough to shelter several different types of bands, whether you are The Dave Matthews Band or RAQ."
The Jammy Awards have had members of non-jamming bands which were founded in the 1970s and were unrelated to the Grateful Dead perform at their show such as New Wave band The B-52's. The Jammys have also awarded musicians from prior decades such as Frank Zappa.
Some artists such as The Derek Trucks Band are known for resisting the jam band label. Dave Schools of Widespread Panic said in an interview, "We want to shake free of that name, jam band. The jam band thing used to be the Grateful Dead bands. We shook free of that as hard as we could back in 1989. Then Blues Traveler came on the scene. All together, we created the H.O.R.D.E. tour, which focused a lot of attention on jam bands. Then someone coined the term jam bands. I'd rather just be called retro. When you pigeonhole something, you limit its ability to grow and change." An example of a prior-era band that gained the label "jam band" through an active affiliation with the 1990s jam band culture is The Allman Brothers Band. However, Gregg Allman has been quoted as recently as 2003 by his fellow band member Butch Trucks in stating that rather than being a jam band The Allman Brothers are "a band that jams".
Although Trucks suggests that this is only a difference of semantics, the term has a recent history for which it is used exclusively. An example of this discernment is the acceptance of Les Claypool as jam band in the year 2000. Though famed from an entire decade with Primus (a band that jams) and solo works, it was in creating the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade with members of Ratdog and releasing Live Frogs Set 1 that as Budnick has stated "marked [Claypool's] entry into [the jamband] world." Budnick has been both editor-in-chief of Jambands.com and executive editor of Relix Magazine.
The band that set the template for future Jam bands was The Grateful Dead, founded in 1965 by legendary San Francisco-based guitarist Jerry Garcia. Although their studio albums enjoyed only modest success, and they were never an AM-radio favorite, "The Dead" attracted an enormous cult following, mainly on the strength of their live performances (and live albums). Drawing inspiration from Eric Clapton's short-lived (but influential) supergroup Cream, the band specialized, in concert, in improvisational jamming. They played long two-set shows, and gave their fans a different experience every night, with varying setlists, evolving songs, creative segues and extended instrumentals. Their loyal fans ("Deadheads") followed them on tour from city to city, and a hippie subculture developed around the band, complete with psychedelic clothes, drug paraphernalia, and a black market in concert-related products. The band toured regularly for nearly three decades, except for a hiatus from 1974-1976. The eventual heirs to this "Shakedown Street" fan culture, Phish, formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont in Burlington. They solidified their lineup in 1985, and began their career with a few Grateful Dead songs in their repertoire.
The Allman Brothers Band were also considered a Jam band, particularly during the Duane Allman era. Songs such as "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and "Whipping Post", which were 5-7 minutes long on their studio albums, became 20 minute jams at concerts. The Allmans even performed a 34 minute jam with the Grateful Dead in 1970. Their 1972 album Eat A Peach included "Mountain Jam", a 34 minute instrumental that was recorded live. The 1971 live album At Fillmore East featured a 24 minute version of "Whipping Post", and a 20 minute version of Willie Cobb's "You Don't Love Me". This is where the Allmans got their reputation as a Jam band, but they cut back on the length of their jams after Duane Allman died (in a motorcycle crash).
The Grateful Dead continued to grow their fanbase to nearly unmanagable levels in the second half of the 1980s. The party atmosphere of Grateful Dead shows drew in a new generation of fans, especially after they released "Touch of Grey" which surprisingly became a hit song on MTV in 1987. They eventually began playing football stadiums, where fans turned the parking lots into campgrounds.
In the mid-1980s the bands Phish, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Blues Traveler, Ozric Tentacles, Widespread Panic, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Spin Doctors, Col Bruce Hampton and Aquarium Rescue Unit, began touring with Jam band-style concerts. Their fame increased in the early 1990s. Widespread Panic originated in Athens, GA, when Michael Houser and John Bell started playing together. In 1986, after Todd Nance and Dave Schools joined them, the band played their first show as "Widespread Panic". Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors came from the same scene, playing Jam-friendly venues and festivals.
In some cases, their improvisations have taken a backseat to more polished material, which may be due to their crossover commercial successes, MTV videos, and mainstream radio airplay. Most notable in pre-Jam band history was the obvious influence of The Grateful Dead. By the end of the decade, Phish had signed a recording contract with Elektra Records, and transformed from a New England/Northeast-based band into a national touring band (see: Colorado '88). While they may not have had Phish's commercial success, "With its fusion of southern rock, jazz, and blues, Widespread Panic has earned renown as one of America's best live bands. They have often appeared in Pollstar's "Concert Pulse" chart of the top fifty bands on the road, and they have performed more than 150 live dates a year."
In the early 1990s, a new generation of bands was spurred on by The Grateful Dead's touring and the increased exposure of The Black Crowes, Phish, Widespread Panic and Aquarium Rescue Unit. Phish was building a large fan base and innovating new concepts into their shows. At the same time, the inception of the Internet provided a medium for fans to discuss these bands and their performances.
Phish (along with The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles) was one of the first bands to have a Usenet newsgroup. To capitalize on this, they started trying out new theatrics at shows, such as the Big Ball Jam from 1992–1994, the Secret Language created in 1992 (03/06/92 - Portsmouth, NH), and the Audience Chess match, that lasted the entire 1995 tour. A rapidly expanding concert-going market in the early 1990s saw Phish playing mid-sized amphitheaters already in 1993 and 1994, with the band really starting to build momentum. The band also earned chances to play at various large venues, such as Madison Square Garden, by 1994's end. Many new bands were formed in the blooming scene. These were the first new bands to actually be called "jam bands", including ekoostik hookah, The Recipe, Dispatch, Gov't Mule, One-Eyed Jack, Leftover Salmon, Jambay, moe., Rusted Root and The String Cheese Incident.
During the summer of 1995, Grateful Dead guitarist and frontman Jerry Garcia died, ending the group's thirty years of prominence. The surviving members created a band called The Other Ones (they used the name "The Dead" for some tours in the following decade). During the same period, Phish rose to prominence, and bands such as String Cheese Incident and Blues Traveler became successful. Many stranded Deadheads moved over to Phish scene, which was at the time the top touring Jam band behind The Grateful Dead. Phish began a new chapter in their career after the demise of The Grateful Dead, as the band became more popular, and more recognized as mainstream, over the next five years.
Phish's popularity exploded after the demise of The Grateful Dead. In spite of being ignored by most media, they drew large crowds to amphitheaters and arenas throughout the late 1990s. During this period, the Jam band scene gained more recognition, with Phish identified as a leader. After a short hiatus from 2000–2002, Phish resumed a heavy touring schedule in 2003. By 2004, a variety of issues led lead singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio to break up the band.
Phish held their first major music festival on August 16 and 17, 1996 in Plattsburgh, NY, which drew 70,000 "phans", and featured seven sets of music. This was the largest concert of the year, and Phish followed that up with similar-sized festivals in the Northeast in 1997, 1998, and 1999. Between December 30, 1999, and January 1, 2000, Phish held an enormous festival named "Big Cypress" in southern Florida, which concluded with an eight-hour set to begin the new millennium. The final shows before their breakup in 2004 were at the Coventry Festival in Vermont. As of 2011, Phish has played a total of nine multi-day camping festivals. The success of these festivals led other bands to start their own festivals, notably the Disco Biscuits, who held their first Camp Bisco in 1999, and moe., which began its annual moe.down festivals in 2000.
A more significant consequence of Phish's reinvention of large-scale festivals can be seen founding of the Bonnaroo festival in 2002. This multi-band, multi-day festival in Manchester, Tennessee, which annually draws close to 100,000 music fans, started as a jam band-focused festival. Over time, bands from many genres have performed at Bonnaroo, but the similarities to Phish's festivals are still apparent. Other music festivals have sprung up all over the country, and this has become an important part of the music industry, as bands seek ways to compensate for the deteriorating compact disc market.
After Coventry, many Phish fans found themselves in a predicament similar to that Deadheads faced almost a decade previously. With no more Phish to follow around, the hundreds of thousands of Phish fans began investing time in the other top jam band acts of the day. This gave newer bands such as STS9, Disco Biscuits, and Umphrey's McGee a greater opportunity to grow their fanbase. These bands have steadily increased their popularity, but so far, no jam band has reached Phish's attendance levels. It should be noted that Phish never reached the Grateful Dead's peak attendance levels, so the fragmentation of the jam band scene has been a long term trend. Phish announced on October 1, 2008 that they would return to the stage in March 2009 at Hampton Coliseum.
Widespread Panic became the top jam band (by attendance) after Phish broke up in 2004. Their southern jam style brings out large crowds to amphitheaters and large indoor venues. Bringing in Jimmy Herring in 2006, a virtuoso jam band veteran guitarist, added a fresh edge to their huge catalog of songs.
moe. has maintained a tightly-knit fanbase through this period. Their enduring popularity is supported by steady touring, including frequent festival appearances. String Cheese Incident has mixed bluegrass and electronic sounds to build a devoted fanbase as well. SCI has significantly reduced their touring schedule in recent years, giving each of their shows a special reunion vibe.
Many of today's jam bands have brought widely varied genres into the scene. A jam band festival may include bands with electronic, folk rock, blues-rock, jazz fusion, psychedelic rock, southern rock, progressive rock, acid jazz, hip hop, hard rock, and bluegrass sounds. The electronic trend has been led by such bands as The Disco Biscuits, Business As Usual, Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9), Lotus, EOTO,Papadosio and The New Deal. Bands like moe., Umphrey's McGee, Assembly of Dust, The Heavy Pets, The Breakfast, and The Werks have carried on the classic rock sound mixed with exploratory jams. Members of The Grateful Dead have continued touring in many different configurations as The Dead, Bob Weir & Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends, 7 Walkers, and Furthur.
The contemporary jam scene has grown to encompass bands from a great diversity of musical genres. A 2000-era genre of jam-band music uses live improvisation that mimics the sounds of DJs and electronica musicians and has been dubbed "trancefusion" (a fusion between trance music and rock and roll). Progressive bluegrass and progressive rock are also quite popular among fans of jam bands.
Hundreds of jam-based festivals and concerts are held throughout the United States every year. The Bonnaroo Music Festival, held each June in Tennessee continues to provide a highly visible forum for jam acts, even though this festival has brought in many different genres over its decade-plus history.
The All Good Music Festival, is one of the largest festivals with a pure jam band focus. This festival began in 1997, changing sites in the early years, then settling on a permanent home at Marvin's Mountaintop, in West Virginia until 2011. In 2012, the festival moved to Legend Valley, Ohio. Other festivals that have been held in recent years with heavy jam influence include Gathering of the Vibes, Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival, Rothbury Festival, Langerado, Mountain Jam (festival), and Summer Camp Music Festival.
Jam bands often allow their fans to make tapes or recordings of their live shows, a practice which many other musical genres call "illegal bootlegging". The Grateful Dead encouraged this practice, which helped to create a thriving scene around the collecting and trading of recordings of Grateful Dead live performances. Most of the live shows on the Grateful Dead's 30 years of touring were recorded. It was probably the trading of recordings of Grateful Dead shows which built the band's fan base.
Starting in 1984, the band recognized the fact that people were already "unofficially" taping their shows, so they started to sell taper tickets for a taper's section which allowed the tapers to bring their own microphones and tape decks to record with, as well as wrangle the tapers into one area of the venue so to keep them from interfering with other concertgoers. This type of encouragement has spread to nearly all of the jam bands. Some jam band enthusiasts argue that if a band does not allow fans to tape their live shows, this band is not actually a jam band in the Grateful Dead tradition.
Fans trade recordings and collect recordings of different live shows because improvisational jam bands play their songs differently at each performance and generally mix up their set lists so as to encourage fans to see them on multiple nights. Fans collect various versions of their favorite songs and actively debate which is the "best version" of any particular song, keeping lists of notable versions of those songs.
They keep track of how many times a specific song has been played and note the frequency of performances of certain songs, and note the relative rarity or commonality of its performance during certain years. This increases the momentousness of a rare song being dusted off and played live, or played for the first time. Some bands play with this phenomenon by throwing short little "teases" into their sets. Playing, for example, a few bars of a famous cover song or hinting at a popular jam and then either never getting around to playing the song, or coming back to it after an extended jam. The use of segues to blend strings of songs together is another mark of a jam band, and one which makes for treasured tapes.
By the 2000s, as internet downloading of MP3 music files became common, downloading of jam band songs became an extension of the cassette taping trend. Archived jam band downloads are available at various websites, the most prominent ones being etree and the Live Music Archive, which is part of the Internet Archive.
More bands have been distributing their latest shows online. Bands such as Phish, Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident, Gov't Mule, ekoostik hookah, Umphrey's McGee, Lotus, and The Disco Biscuits have been offering digital downloads within days, or sometimes hours, of concerts. The Grateful Dead have begun to offer online, digital download only, live releases from their archives as well. While there is some obvious conflict of interest between the "free and open trading of shows" and artists packaging and selling the same shows for money, a dynamic equilibrium has been reached where die-hards trade and others are happy to pay for the convenience.
Some venues offer kiosks where fans may purchase a digital recording of the concert and download it to a USB flash drive or another portable digital storage device. Some bands, including The Allman Brothers, Zac Brown and O.A.R. offer "Instant Lives", which are concert recordings made available for purchase on Compact Disc or USB Flash Drive shortly after the show ends. Most major music festivals also offer digital live recordings at the event. Several vendors such as Instant Live by Live Nation and ADERRA  offer this remote recording service for instant delivery. Even though these shows are freely traded in digital format, "official" versions are still bought by fans for the graphics, liner notes, and packaging.
In the August 2006 issue of Guitar One on jam bands, the following places were referred to as the "best places to see jam music": Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Red Rocks Park, Denver, CO; Jam Cruise, Fort Lauderdale, FL; The Gorge Amphitheatre, George, Washington; High Sierra Music Festival, Quincy, CA; Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY; The Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA; Bonnaroo Music Festival (Bonnaroo has become increasingly mainstream in recent years, and has seen a shift in fan base), Manchester, TN; The Warfield Theater, San Francisco, CA; Barrymore Theatre, Madison, WI; Higher Ground, Burlington, Vermont, Nelson Ledges Quarry Park, Garrettsville, Ohio; and the Jam in the Dam in Amsterdam.
One way to see many jam bands in one place is by going to a jam band-oriented music festival. Some popular festivals that include jam bands are: Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee; Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Rothbury Festival in Rothbury, Michigan; Jambaloosa in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; The aforementioned High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California; All Good; Jerry Garcia's Birthday Bash (JGBB) in West Virginia; Some Kind of Jam, Pennsylvania; Langerado in South Florida; Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival outside of Fayetteville, AR; 10,000 Lakes Festival in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota; Camp Bisco in Mariaville, New York; Mountain Jam (festival) in Hunter Mt, New York; Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado; Hookahville in Ohio; Schwagstock in Missouri; moe.down in Turin, New York; Vegoose in Nevada; and Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, Illinois.
Mark Schultz described fundamental differences between the business models of jam bands and the mainstream music industry: "Jamband fans seem to view band management as people who work for the artists and themselves as part of a community that includes the band. Mainstream music fans, on the other hand, often portray band management as part of a ruthless industry that merely employs musicians and mistreats fans and musicians alike." He relates this to the work of Tom R. Tyler, who described "two alternative strategies for effective law enforcement:
Jam bands encourage fans to bring recording equipment to live performances and give away copies of what they record. This practice may increase the sizes of their audiences and the total revenue received from concerts and sale of recorded music. The fans reciprocate the generosity of the jam bands by helping enforce the copyright rules that the bands write, consistent with Tyler's "process-based" law enforcement. Schultz said the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) seems to call most fans pirates intent on stealing their music. Thus, the mainstream music industry attempts to maximize their revenue through deterring illegal sharing of music. [For more on the approach of the mainstream music industry to copyrights, see Free Culture (book).]
Schultz said that the key concept here is reciprocity: Fans treated with generosity and respect by jam bands tend to be more loyal even to the point of helping enforce the copyrights the jam bands claim. Fans similarly reciprocate the hostility they perceive in the anti-piracy lawsuits filed by the mainstream recording industry. It's not clear which business model is most remunerative for music industry managers, but Schultz insisted that jam bands tend to have more loyal fans, and the mainstream music industry might benefit from treating their fans with more respect, following the model of jam bands.
Some of the prominent artists associated with the jam-band scene include: