Postcards From Page Side: Are Jambands On The Verge of Extinction?

From bands such as Phish, Dave Matthews and Blues Traveler who played the venue in the very early ’90s, I really seemed to connect with the venue around the mid ’90s by seeing a slew of bands there including the Disco Biscuits, God Street Wine, Ozomatli, KVHW, moe., The Big Wu and many, many more. While many of these bands rode the surge of the H.O.R.D.E. tour from the early ’90s, the proverbial doors of perception were blown wide open in the world of jambands. Simply put, I realize now, it was a decade long period from about ’92-’02 that I will always classify in my mind as the time to be around this genre of music.

Many of the most memorable nights revolved around more rock-based shows by the Disco Biscuits, who repeatedly spun a sonic jigsaw puzzle that often had me stumbling out into the streets wondering what the hell I just saw, with my collective brain spilling out of my ears, and a shit-eating grin on my face. In fact, it has taken me many years to really appreciate — and yearn for a return — to this formative experiences. Other acts that always impressed and often threw down 20-30 minute tunes were moe. and KVHW. Moe. has remained faithfully true to their jamming roots even up to today, and may be the exception of this column. The Biscuits certainly still push the envelope, but in a much more electronic way nowadays, which I have nothing bad to say about, but simply for the sake of this piece wish I could capture the raw energy and power of some of their earlier shows. KVHW, led by Steve Kimock on guitar, was a more psychedelic experience, and often times led one through a cosmic journey of epic proportions.

Whatever your taste, it was clear bands such as these, in a place such as the Wetlands in the ’90s was something truly special to witness. The absolute pinnacle of the jamband world in my mind, and one that has slowly seen the slow decline of this era since, was the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002. To truly grasp what this lineup of mega-powers meant to our scene at the time cannot be overstated. It was truly the first festival of its kind and magnitude, where every name on the jamband circuit was seemingly in the same place for a few days.

From The Big Wu opening the enire shindig and and altering the lyrics to their pop-hit Kangaroo to scream “Bonnaroo!” it was a simple gesture that sums up what i’m trying to get at – pure magic and a snapshot of history. Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t been back to Bonnaroo since that inaugural year – it was just too perfect in my own mind, and I’d like those memories to be preserved forever that way. Selfish? Maybe. Stupid? Perhaps. Jaded? Definitely a little. But still the way that I prefer to leave it for the time being, knowing how good things once were and that I lived right in the middle of it all.

Now, this is in no way shape or form to say that there are no bands in this day and age that don’t “jam,” but simply that things aren’t like these used to be. The Biscuits, moe. and a few others mentioned still throw down amazing shows (which i still go and see), but there has certainly been a changing of the guard or shift of powers, if nothing else. While the Bonnaroo lineup now consists of some jambands that have always been there (Widespread Panic for one), there are a slew of hip-hop, hippie and hipster mega acts that blend all genres. It’s a sign of the times and something that always intrigues me and allows many friends to claim it was the “best-ever,” but for this old dog, I long for the sweaty, Thursday nights with a couple dozen or couple hundred other souls witnessing a “jamband” throwing down a single song longer than your dad’s daily commute from Greenwich to Grand Central. Simply put, many of these acts are dying off, becoming extinct. Yes, yes, there is a “newer” breed of acts like Lotus and Perpetual Groove that are blending jam roots with electronic dance music from the past decade of the 2000’s, but that X Factor is still missing in my mind.

While I may be a bit older and not seeing music five to seven nights a week anymore, it’s simply a preference of what I grew up on. Remember, it was these formative experiences that allow me to write a column about jambands today. There are still amazing acts we all get to share, and that is a blessing upon itself, but I fear that the true spirit of the scene has lost most of its mystique. I hope I’m wrong, and somewhere in a tiny town there is a 17-year old version of myself experiencing the next wave of jambands on the rise. And if that’s the case, let me know! I’m always up for hearing new stuff. For the time being though, I think I’ll throw on a Maxell XL-II S recording of The Biscuits from The Wetlands or KVHW in ’99 and simply reminisce. I invite you to do the same with a few monstrous shows I saw below…

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12 Responses

  1. Very well written, I’ve always felt the same, just never knew how to put it in words. That Wetlands KVHW show at the bottom is phenomenal, too.

  2. I grew up in Seattle and during the mid-late ’90s i would get tapes of bands i liked from Wetlands Preserve. For the longest time I just assumed it was a scenic outdoor venue. HA! Imagine the laugh I had when I was told it was a tiny venue in lower Manhattan.

    Anywhooo great piece. Many of those same bands graced our Tractor Tavern, Backstage, & Showbox during those same years. Great memories.

  3. When i was 16 in 2000 as a high school sophomore in the Chicago ‘burbs is when I was just getting into the jam scene, which is just towards the end of the cusp you mentioned. As for live shows, when I was 18 is when I started getting out and about more often. I can see what you’re saying with the jam scene as bands are becoming few and far between. There are still plenty of bands that jam, for sure. But I look at UM, one of my favorites and one of the bands that still really jams, but even they shy away from the label “jamband.” Some bands almost don’t want the association with it anymore.

    You reference ’02 as the end of the era, and that’s definitely true. Phish was still on hiatus, and that’s around when Houser died. So all of a sudden the 2 big guns hit some serious speed bumps, which you can’t leave out. It seems it never really recovered after that, as some of the smaller bands never got to the next level and as the 2000’s went on and indie rock and electronic movements seemed to have outweighed anything new that emerged from the jam scene.

    There is still plenty of great music coming out in 2011, just a change in the guard you were used to. Hopefully that collective, communal feel can return with some young bands unwilling to forgo a great, building jam for an untz beat.

  4. Nice article for sure. The wetlands were the place to be and kvhm was amazing. For me it has always about the music and whether you like it or not phish is still a jamband. Listen to the Bethel sound check nothing but jamming and that is 2011. The electric stuf drives me nuts. Maybe im just old school. Some day a young kid will pick up a guitar and listen to Garcia, Anastasio, Allman, Hendrix, Houser and Scneider and realize that there was a time where all you needed was a guitar. No electric shtit, no amazing poetry, just fucking jam and like it!

  5. I can’t comment on the jam band scene during the 90’s as I am part of the younger crowd that wasn’t old enough too see many shows then. I do however agree with you that the scene seems to be dying in the true sense of a “jam band.” Sure, there is Lotus, STS9 etc. doing the electronic thing, but there seems to be very few organic, type II jam bands out there anymore.

    I wanted to point out an upcoming jam band in the Boston area that I think is doing what others aren’t — THE JAUNTEE is a 4 piece band I’ve been seeing over the past 6 months or so and have been consistently impressed. They are one of the few bands out there that seem to be doing TRUE type II improv and putting themselves out there. A “scene” has started around them and I see big things in their future.

    I’ve attached their email, and a link to their band camp.

    I think the first song on their, “Fractal Fuck” is a good example of their willingness to get weird and type II. Hope you enjoy!

  6. Brian, great write-up. thanks for sharing. Sadly, I missed out on a lot of the 90s Wetlands era shows bc I wasn’t actually living in NYC until more recently.

    However, I was lucky enough to catch a few KVHW and Steve Kimock Band shows there (99-00), so I love that you pointed to those as a key highlight…especially since they didn’t really get much recognition on the official “Wetlands Preserved” Documentary. But man, that original KVHW lineup with Steve, Ray, Alan and Bobby, was so killer…such a perfect combination of funk and psychedelia, all wrapped up into an improvisational firestorm. When they were on, they were ON.

    I actually put together a KVHW podcast a while back for LMB, called “KVHW Down in the Wetlands” which includes some of my favorite cuts from their ’98 shows (10/16-10/17/98). I feel like you (and anyone else who likes Kimock’s stuff) might really dig it, as it nicely captures the improvisational brilliance of this lineup and some of the energy of those sweaty Wetlands nights (apologies for the shameless self-promo).

    My only question on your write-up above is why no KVHW vids? There’s actually quite a bit of material on youtube these days. If you haven’t done so, I def recommend checking it out.

    Cheers, whit

  7. Excellent article and while I agree with most of the points you made. The only thing I will say is this…while Jambands may not be as prominent as they once were they are most certainly present…you just gotta look for it. I recently attended the catskill chill and there are a few bands that seem to be doing there thing (The Heavy Pets, Umphreys Mcgee for example). Nothing will ever top Bonnaroo 2002. The only thing that could have possibly come close to doing so would have been Rothbury…but until theres really nothing in the works it seems…

    In terms of a realistic lineup to bring in the masses I would say it would have to look something like this…

    Widespread Panic
    Allman Brothers Band
    String Cheese
    Govt Mule
    The Meters (original lineup)
    The Disco Biscuits
    Karl Densons Tiny Universe
    Yonder Mountain String Band
    Any Claypool band at all
    Any Kimock band at all
    Aquarium Rescue Unit
    Robert Randolph and the Fam Band
    Bela Fleck and The Flecktones
    Keller Williams
    Railroad Earth
    The New Mastersounds
    Tea Leaf Green
    New Monsoon
    Burning Spear

    This is pretty much for the most part what everyone would wanna see in terms of a “new” bonnaroo…and while Im not sure why it wouldnt happen but the closest thing we have to these days is JAMCRUISE…I did jamcruise 4 and 5 and its basically the greatest week of your life. Simply amazing. Nothing compares. Thats all Im gonna say. but this lineup here is a cream dream and its a shame that itll never happen

  8. he only thing that could have possibly come close to doing so would have been Rothbury…but until theres really nothing in the works it seems…

    I think Rothbury turning into Electric Forest is a great example of the changing of the guard…

  9. yes, great thought-provoking piece. i too was around in the late eightes on up and what times, what times. i don’t know either way, but i am sure glad i was there!

  10. I saw the ultimate jam band, Phish fo rthe first time on the HORDE tour in the summer of ’92. By the summer of ’94 I was a full on Jam Band fan. Catching great gigs from moe, string cheese, ominous seapods, god street wine, ARU, Shockra, widepsread and a mass of others. While I agree the jam band scene is not chock full like it was back then, the new bread is great as well. I am a huge fan of P Groove, Heavy Pets, Soullive (which are not that new), New Mastersounds, Tea Leaf Green, New Monsoon, etc. The scene is still alive out there. I agree tremendously with @its out there, regarding Jam Cruise but I also will be going to my first Bear Creek Fest next month that looks like a Jam Cruise on land. So while it is not happening in every local bar or club on a weekly basis, it is still out there and it is even better when you get the opportunity to catch it. Go see live music NOW!!!

  11. The guard is changing…. but it’s still jamming. Even if it’s a laptop being used and not guitars, it’s still jamming, but of a different nature. And where guitars are concerned, there’s plenty of fire still burning there. This article is provocative, but not indiciative of any musical trend or shifts happening right now! This Summer the big news was the Indie Rock was showing it’s jamband roots, and more ‘jam” was being injected into that music.

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