Jam Bands: Unbearable Noise or Transcendaent Experience?

We asked our readers if they thought jam bands were the beginning or the end of music as we know it. The vote was split right down the middle—50/50. So we asked two of our contributors to face off with nothing less than the legacy of Phish on the line.

Unbearable Noise
Jam Bands? Here’s how I define them: Mountain disco—a bunch of highly caffeinated bluegrass matched with indecipherable lyrics and hard-driving African drum beats all engineered to give ski-snowboard-mountain bike-kayak bums (i.e., white people) some kind of tribal backbeat to sway around in an open field like some synchronized bed of seaweed.

I mean, that should be a good thing, but there’s all that patchouli in the air. And all those 20-minute solos that go nowhere when just a dozen well-picked notes would do. And there are all those mindless mandolin-picking fests and 20 dudes in a row with the same Ben & Jerry’s t-shirt on playing air guitar, saying, “That was tasty, bro.”

There’s also the fact that not one of them, Phish, New Monsoon, String Cheese Incident or the Colfax Chocolate Eclairs, seem capable of writing a lyric to save their steel-string souls.

I mean, I hear Phish singing, “Bag it, tag it, sell it to the butcher in the store,” and I think, “Man, that’s just Vermont’s version of ‘The Hustle.’”

Which I guess means that I should take a time-out here. Because I am calling out Phish, the jam-band sacred tofu cow.

Look, I love the way American music makes you feel. I think country is white man’s blues, rock and roll is the backbone of freedom and soul music is the sexiest sound the world has ever known. I also think those last Grateful Dead shows at Red Rocks were among the best concerts ever played, and Phish was my most ‘transcendent’ college show.

I was amazed how easily they transitioned from Metheny to Zeppelin and John Lee Hooker. But the fact that the audience was bouncing around on trampolines the whole time should have been my first clue. I mean, how high do I have to get my heart rate to enjoy the show? For me, that whole hula-hooping, expanding your mind, getting a tan and fitting in an extended aerobic workout is the worst part of the whole jam band deal.

I’ll get my exercise in the mountains, thanks. All that blue sky will expand my mind just fine. Then I’ll grab a beer and listen to the band at the bar.
—Peter Kray

Transcendent Experience
I hated the Grateful Dead when I was in high school. I was a headbanger who spurned all the sunshine and rainbows associated with Jerry, dancing bears and anything tie-dyed. I wasn’t buying it. My older stepbrother and I shared a room, and he was in a metal band named Manifest. They partied, hung out at the jam room, and kicked ass for fun. I started writing my own teen-angst ridden songs.

My stepbrother was known around high school for belting out primal screams in the hallway. He wore Megadeth t-shirts with the sleeves and armpits cut out, and had a hot rocker chick for a girlfriend—zip-up-the-back stonewashed jeans, hair-sprayed, turned-up bangs and all.

Naturally, I followed my stepbrother’s lead and formed my own band, the Cannibal Poets. I was the lead singer, and we ripped up on cover tunes like “Whiplash!” by Metallica and “Children of the Grave” by Black Sabbath. The Cannibal Poets played a couple live “shows” in church basements and coffee shops, inspired a mosh pit or two, and eventually went the way of so many great bands and broke up. It wasn’t drugs or women that split us up, but graduation from high school and the beginning of my transcendent jamband experience.

Phish changed my life. I went away to a small college in North Adams, Massachusetts, started hanging out with some suburban hippies, and saw my first Phish show at Lake Placid, New York in 1995. My mind was blown before I walked in the Olympic Center’s doors. Here was a culture that existed outside my comprehension—and I seemed to fit right in. Street vendors selling veggie burritos out of dirty coolers? Wow, I’ll take two! At the time, I was a snack-e-tarian surviving off the cafeteria cereal bar, baked potatoes and pizza. And look at the wasted people laughing and lying in the grass unafraid of security, ants or cigarette butts? Amazing! Got room for another?

Then the show started, and people with dreadlocks and patchwork pants were dancing in the aisles and singing along. There were no mosh pits, but lots of group hugs, high-fives and hemp necklaces thick as my forearm.

The music was in perfect sync with a blinding light show. Phish was the perfect combination of high-energy rock and improvisational roll, complex and simple at the same time. I was hooked.

At their best, segues in music—like “Mike’s Song-I am Hydrogen-Weekapaug Groove” by Phish—are a mirror image of life. Like my segue from headbanger hippy-hater to kind, vegetarian bro, or angry Masshole to mellow transplant living in Colorado.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love my metal music. I’ve just eased up some on the hate—and I just may have Phish to thank for that.
—Mike Horn

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