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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Don't be too quick in dismissing jam bands

Jam bands, the oft-maligned subcategory of rock bands which write cheesy lyrics and play never-ending songs, happen to be my favorite kind of music.  The genre itself is hard to define, but pretty much any band that “jams” can be a jam band. 

In 2009, Rolling Stone did a reader’s poll of the “Top 15 Jam Bands of All Time.”  The results of the poll might surprise you.  It should be no great shock that the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Umphrey’s McGee made this list. Shockingly, however, Led Zeppelin clocked in at number seven, My Morning Jacket at number eight and Jimi Hendrix at number eleven.

Sure, Led Zeppelin would perform songs well past their studio versions’ lengths in concert, but to call them a jam band? How dare they! Led Zeppelin wrote fantastic songs, and Robert Plant’s voice is arguably one of the best voices in the history of rock.  My Morning Jacket puts on one of the best live shows that I have seen and they’ll play the occasional extended cut in concert, but does that make them a jam band?

My freshman year of high school I picked up a copy of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  The album clocks in at over an hour and a half, with five of the six songs breaking the 10-minute threshold. While potentially daunting to some, I was enthralled by the musicianship of Miles Davis and guitarist John McLaughlin.  This was the transition I needed to start listening to jam bands.  The improvisational spirit that resounds in jazz is extremely prevalent in the jam scene.

A song like Phish’s “You Enjoy Myself” is more jazz opus than noodle-y jam band song.  Someone might listen to all types of electronic music, but if you told them Lotus is a jam band they would likely dismiss them before even listening. But if they heard “Bush Pilot” without any prior biases, they might actually like it.

Jam bands are also known for putting on remarkable live shows.  This is reason enough for people to listen to them, as in many cases the band’s studio output is not reflective of what they sound like on stage. 

Even if The Beatles managed to survive without touring post-1964, in this day and age a band can’t survive financially without hitting the road.  By deciding to skip every jam band when they come to your town, you are missing out on some of the best live performances of today.

When I saw MGMT in 2010, I expected big things.  Oracular Spectacular is one of my favorite albums, and at the time I was warming up to Congratulations.  Four songs in, I found myself dozing off.  Two months later, when I saw Phish, despite the lack of any video screens or even a backdrop, I found myself wanting to see them again, knowing that the next show would look completely different.

People sometimes ask me, “Why do you see the same band over and over again?”  The answer is simple: You never quite know what is going to happen at a jam band show.  Whether it is a cover of a song that is your guilty pleasure, such as when Phish covered “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry in 2009, or the anticipation of what song is coming up (as a hallmark of these shows is a new set list every night), you just never know what will happen next.

Dean Budnick, one of the editors of Relix Magazine and, spoke at the opening of the first ever Jammy Awards.

“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,” Budnick said. “These groups share a collective penchant for improvisation, a commitment to song craft 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.”

So I urge all of you to take Dean’s words to heart, don’t run the moment you hear the phrase “jam band,” but instead the next time one comes to your town go to their show.  I think you might like what you hear.

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