So I was listening to the newest edition of Joe Bonamassa and Matt Abrmovitz’s The Pickup Radio Show, which is about the late, great member of the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman. I was listening to the show because it’s a great freakin’ show, but also I kind of went into it expecting to write a piece this week on Duane Allman for the blog. But then Joe said something that started turning my gears. Joe called the Allman Brothers Band “The jam band to end all jam bands.”
Now I’ve always associated The Allman Brothers Band with “southern rock” more than the jam band scene, but Joe’s right – they instantiate basically every feature that is characteristic of your typical jam band. The hallmark of the jam band is the “jam,” sensibly enough. Like improvisational jazz and blues music, jam rock features long, extended interludes within songs based on soloing and other improvisational elements. When a band plays a jam song, they generally never play it the same exact way twice, and oftentimes the song will go off in unexpected and new directions. If you’ve ever seen or listened to a live Allman Brothers show, you know they fit the bill perfectly.
You know who else plays a lot of long, extended, improvisational solos during his sets? A certain blues-rocker I know named Joe Bonamassa. Joe, of course, is a solo artist, and not a “band” – although he has a band! – but it’s always been pretty evident to me that in addition to being a bluesman and blues-rocker, Joe can definitely be characterized as a jam act. I think that Joe’s music would easily appeal to a jam band fan, and that fans of Joe could get into other jam band acts as well.
So here’s a list of five jam bands and acts that I love (including Mr. Bonamassa) and a sample of each so you can get a taste of
1. The Grateful Dead
While Joe is right to point to the Allmans as one of the all-time greats of the jam band circuit, to me and to many out there, The Grateful Dead is the true epitome of the jam band and the one that really started it all. Founded in 1965 in Palo Alto, California, the band quickly cultivated a rabid, almost religious fan base who would basically follow them to the ends of the Earth and beyond. Having sold over 35 million albums worldwide, they are a true commercial juggernaut, which is amazing considering the grassroots nature of their following and relative lack of radio play and other major media exposure. The knock on the Dead is that they would have off nights where they almost sounded sloppy. But the payoff was that when they were on, people would say there’s nothing like it. And that’s the whole idea behind risk – sometimes you can lose. But nobody was better at taking improvisational risks than Jerry Garcia and company. Fans of the band are off-the-wall ecstatic that there will be a series of Grateful Dead reunion shows this summer, with Trey Anastasio taking over the role of the late Jerry Garcia (don’t worry, Trey and his other band are on this list as well). Here’s a clip of the band playing one of my favorite songs, the brightly melodic “Sugar Magnolia” with its “Sunshine Daydream” coda.
2. The Allman Brothers Band
The band that inspired this whole post! One of my first ever concerts was an Allman Brothers show, back in the mid-1990s. My dad took me to see them; well, after I spent some time convincing him how much he wanted to go. I was familiar with their music, having known the albums Brothers and Sisters and At Fillmore East pretty well. In fact, one of my favorite songs in the world at that time was “Jessica” and I was just dying to hear that song played live. But once I heard the first few notes fly through the sky on that warm summer night with the waves of the ocean crashing in the background and its scent permeating my nose, I no longer cared what songs they would play – I just knew I was in for a fantastic show. Incidentally, I think they opened with “Statesboro Blues” another song I happened to love. But it was the improvisational, intertwining of the twin guitar attack and the smooth, soulful vocals of Gregg Allman that really sold me on this wonderful ensemble of musicians. Of course, their story is also tragic, with the loss of several founding members along the way, including Duane Allman, whose slide guitar playing is simply enchanting.
If The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers are the jam stalwarts of the classic rock scene, then it has to be Phish that has spearheaded the modern rock jam movement. Phish is a band unlike any other I’ve ever heard or seen, at least any other that came before them. They often draw comparisons with the Grateful Dead, some of which are fair. But Phish is not merely a Grateful Dead clone. They are an original, gripping, brilliant reincarnation of the vibe that the Dead carried, carrying the torch of their forefathers but never simply recreating the music. Phish has inspired legions of contemporary jam bands in just the way that the Dead must have inspired Phish. Their origins, like many of us, were somewhat more humble. In fact, the band formed in that great institution to which so many of us owe our formative years and during which we embark on long journeys of immense self-discovery – college! But they’ve come a long way from their dormitory in 1983, and Phish is now probably the biggest pure jam band in the United States. Here they are playing a wonderful composition, the mysterious, evocative “Stash.”
4. The String Cheese Incident
Yes, there was an actual incident with string cheese that inspired the name (it was a band food fight). Formed in Colorado in 1993, The String Cheese Incident is one of the generation of jam bands that popped up in the early to mid-90s inspired by bands like The Allmans, The Grateful Dead, and Phish. And they happen to be a very, very good one. Not only is their instrumental prowess impeccable, but they have a taste and flair for genre-bending which is lots of fun. From straight up bluegrass to techno music to everything in between, String Cheese can do it all. There were a plurality of other jam bands that I considered mentioning in this spot: Blues Traveler, Moe., Dave Matthews Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Umphrees McGee, etc. etc., but ultimately I thought String Cheese was a great representation of the jam band vibe. But don’t let me dissuade you from giving all those other acts a listen too – they are all great in their own way. For String Cheese, I chose a performance of “Close Your Eyes.” a song from their 2001 album Outside Inside. It’s a great tune, demonstrating the songwriting talents of the band, with some nice jamming too.
5. Joe Bonamassa??
Joe Bonamassa, blues titan and virtuoso guitarist, is, as I alluded to above, not generally thought of as a “jam musician” or part of the jam band scene. But boy does he jam hard at his shows. Joe got his professional start as a musician opening up for blues legend B.B. King when Joe was only 12 years old, and he hasn’t looked back since. Part of what makes Joe so special – and a natural fit for the jam scene – is the sheer amount of musical output he produces. The man releases a studio album basically every year, either a solo album or one of his collaborative projects like his duo albums with Beth Hart and his membership in the jazz-funk band Rock Candy Funk Party, and is a relentless touring machine whose motto is “always on the road.” With all that live music, and fresh guitar improvisation at every show, there’s a constant demand from his fanbase for live releases. His latest, the unbelievable Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, is Joe’s live tribute to two of the greatest bluesmen who have ever lived, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, recorded at the majestic Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. And this summer, Joe will be returning to Red Rocks and other top amphitheatres with tribute shows dedicated to the “Three Kings” of the blues. One of the hallmarks of a jam band is that you never know what’s going to happen at a show. When it comes to Joe, you never know what sounds will resonate from his guitar, but you can rest assured that whatever they are, the music will be incredible. Here’s a clip of Joe playing a phenomenal Jethro Tull cover, “A New Day Yesterday,” at Rockpalast. I just adore this cover, and the guitar playing slays me.
Featured Photo by Dan Shinnem