As one or two of you may have noticed, the Tuesday Rock & Roll show has gotten a little weird over the past couple of weeks. Gone are any semblance of verse-chorus structured songs, or even any song structures at all. Instead, long, meandering jams, seemingly devoid of any purpose, often lasting well over ten minutes, seem to have taken their place. So what’s going on with this spaced-out music and why is it a part of the Rock Show?
Jam rock has deep roots in rock music; there is no genre that describes it more closely, hence its name. But listen a little more closely, and you may hear the country-blues-rock-jazz fusion of the Grateful Dead, the Zappa-esque funk grooves of Phish, the “jamtronica” of Lotus (peep Jessica’s recent review of Lotus at Park City Live: http://kuteradio.org/tag/lotus/), or the progressive influences in the music of Umphrey’s McGee. This is an eclectic genre that truly shines in its most unrestrained form, live performance. Jam bands, in a practice that is not widespread around the live music scene, never perform two shows with the same setlist. More importantly, though, no two songs are ever performed exactly the same. Jam bands perform their shows “without a net”, that is to say, they have no set plan for how any single song will be played. Instead, their extended musical explorations, which often branch out of rehearsed song sections, are reflections of a single moment in time which will never be replicated. Such is the beauty of jam rock: it is an endless supply of new music due to the fact that no two performances will contain the same music. Though it may be a hard concept to explain, there is no greater musical gift than to be able to constantly hear totally new versions of your favorite song, with familiar parts where they should be, and totally new pieces elsewhere. Thus, live recordings (apart from going to concerts!) represent the best way to consume jam rock, which each unique performance captured as a musical snapshot of a particular moment.
So you might be thinking, “Just because they jam doesn’t mean that it is good!”. You would be absolutely right. With such unplanned, improvisational music, flubs and truly aimless jams are bound to happen. But when all elements come together and bands are firing on all cylinders, amazing moments occur. At their best, for example, the legendary guitarist Jerry Garcia can be heard weaving flowing melodies throughout the rhythmic tidal wave of the Grateful Dead, and Phish’s legendary ability to turn jams on a dime gives them an ability to bring frenzied musical-freak outs to soaring, totally focused peaks. Often, audience reactions can be heard slightly on recordings, and there is a clear sense of mutual exchange of energy between the bands and their audience as each push each other to continue exploring musically.
Before you dismiss jam music as only for spaced-out hippies and freaks, give it a listen. It works equally well in the background or for focused listening. Let the bands take your ear with them wherever they decide to go, and recognize the depth of musical theory, knowledge, and experience that allows these bands to step onstage without a set plan. You may begin to notice clear signs of totally unspoken musical communication between band members, and you may be surprised to hear the return of familiar chords and lyrics after particularly meandering or intense jams. Should you enjoy the music and continuing listening, you may begin to get the sense that there is a huge community around this music, but that topic is for another day. In the meantime, you might be able to start to understand how a little Vermont band like Phish can sell out four nights in a row at Madison Square Garden nearly every New Years weekend, or how a bunch of hippies from late-60s San Francisco, called the Grateful Dead, were able to fill football stadiums well into the 1990s. There is truly more to this music than first meets the ear.