“Overall, it’s amazing how you can have two different people shoot the same show and come away with something so different,” says Lawrence Shapiro. “It can be completely exciting, or slow and un-engaging.”
Not understanding the balance between fan and filmmaker is what kills most concert documentaries. Shapiro knows this. And at 31, the Detroit native and Ithaca College grad is becoming one of the country’s most sought-after concert chroniclers because he’s mastered that balance better than most.
Over the years, Shapiro’s practiced eye has endeared him both to promoters–for whom he shot Jam Cruises 1, 2, and 3, and also the 2003 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival–and bands themselves, including documents of Particle in Europe, the Particle-Mickey Hart fusion Hydra, and, most recently, Los Lobos. There have also been stints at studios like New Line, Fine Line, and Miramax, and, for CNN, coverage of Bonnaroo in 2002, 2003 and 2004, as well as Phish’s IT (2003) and Coventry (2004).
Discussion of the great music documentaries of yore with a type like Shapiro’s quickly leads to “Woodstock,” “Stop Making Sense” and “The Last Waltz,” all touchstones in the way they’re transporting, both inscrutably and not. Shapiro’s “Jam in the Dam” borrows a bit from each, not in the sense of copying, but in how the filmmaker knows how to reach maximum engagement with his viewer using all the tools at his disposal.
The inaugural Jam in the Dam took place at Amsterdam’s legendary Melkweg over three splendid nights in March 2005. For year one, it brought U.S. festival staples Umphrey’s McGee, Particle, the Disco Biscuits and Keller Williams to the party.
Quite crucially, Shapiro seems to understand just how much fan excitement and filmmaker savvy is necessary for a supreme product. Too technical an approach, and your viewing audience is left cold, with no more warmth or understanding than if they had listened to a CD of the captured performances, and the visual component largely wasted.
Then again, you don’t need protracted stretches of jamming intercut with gooey-eyed head-nodders, either. And you certainly don’t want to interrupt performances just taking off with interviews, which Shapiro describes as a “cardinal sin” of music-based documentaries.
No, the skilled music documentarian knows how and when to punctuate music with interview components. Here, Shapiro coaxes telling and oft-hilarious comments from band members, skillfully edited and quite comfortable. “It can be really intimidating to have a camera jammed in your face,” he remarks, before I even ask.
The appeal of Jam in the Dam, in part, is its exoticness. Who wouldn’t want to go to an improvisational music festival in Amsterdam? But the locational aspect alone lends the fest a certain mystery, not least for requiring a bit more preparation than piling all the doods and chicas into the VW Bus and sitting in traffic for a full day, or getting everyone down to Ft. Lauderdale to hop on a boat. Not that those events don’t tax the wallet or planning abilities, but there’s a lot more involved, in that Jam in the Dam is small and far enough away to scare off dilletantes.
These are also things that Shapiro gets, and the fact that his Jam in the Dam documentary is as much a travelogue as it is a concert chronicle is its major selling point. There are better performances captured on video of each of these bands; the point is the scene.
“You’re experiencing Amsterdam through your favorite bands,” he explains. “You’re seeing Keller Williams instead of some travel channel guy. And that’s pretty wild.”
And what a scene–a manageable, comfortable, celebratory one at that. Four bands, neatly slotted in a two-at-a-time format between the Melkweg’s major rooms (two of ’em) over the course of three nights. The music is primo, with Umphrey’s delivering a pantheon-worthy “JaJunk,” several of its members lending a hand to Bisco for “Home Again,” and Keller doing his uniquely delectable Keller thing both solo and, briefly, with a solid if somewhat uninspired Particle.
Shapiro’s roving cameras are there to capture it all, capitalizing, he explains, on the fact that his setup allowed him to get even closer to the groups than he initially thought. Chance favors the prepared mind; those types of happy accidents are the concert documentarian’s good-to-great tipping point.
With hours and hours ready to sort, he consulted the bands, each of whom approved of what finally appeared on the DVD.
“I put together suggestions and sent them to the bands, and some gave us no problem at all. The bands had the ultimate say, and they made suggestions too–Bisco, for example, liked ‘Aceetobee,’ which I also liked,” he explained.
It’s the vibe of the festival that lingers with the viewer, and the music itself is often an afterthought.
“There’s a prevailing attitude of ‘everyone’s in it together,'” Shapiro explains. “Remember that grade school trip to Washington D.C. where you were together with your friends and you just sort of became friends with other people, too, because they were friendly faces in strange places? That’s it.”
“All everyone wants to do is chill and enjoy the music. At Jam in the Dam, I didn’t see anyone patted down or yelled at after an initial security search. Once you’re in, you’re just there to have fun.”
Which isn’t necessarily carte blanche for the other indulgences for which Amsterdam (and festivals in general) are known, he clarifies, but “it was nice just to know that you could, and that you could relax! Imagine, being at a festival or show and just having that weight off,” he says.
“It’s a more mature attitude,” Shapiro adds. “It’s worrying about bigger issues, and that philosophy seems to permeate through everything in Amsterdam. It’s so hard to explain, really, but that’s why I brought the cameras.”
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Chad Berndtson writes about music for The Patriot Ledger, Glide, Relix, Jambands.com and other publications. Drop him a line at [email protected].
Photos by Robert Massie