When people hear the term "Jam Band," various things might go off in their heads. Some people might think, "Oh, like the Grateful Dead?" and then go off into something along the lines of "The songs are too long…" or even "That's for people on a lot of drugs." While these people might have a point, the case for jam music has thrived into the multiple generations after the Grateful Dead with bands like Phish, The String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, and many more. The mentioned acts have continued the Grateful Dead's trajectory with extended improvisational instrumental jams, unique events spawning out of each gig, and fans that follow them wherever they go. With jam music being an art form that is constantly evolving today, fans of all of these bands have spread the word about their favorite jam acts through the trading of live recordings all over the internet, with many different bands getting the spotlight as live recordings continue to circulate. With many newer acts emerging like wildfire, such as Goose, Eggy, and Dopapod, the scene constantly stays fresh and new. Like any band or artist from any genre, word of mouth can be powerful, especially in the world of jam bands.
My jam band journey started in 2020, right after the pandemic shutdowns, with hearing a live recording of Vermont's Phish legendary New Year's Eve 1995 show performed at the Madison Square Garden. I had heard Phish before, but to capture the jam band experience, at least at face value, you have to listen to an entire show front to back to see what the band is truly about. Right when the recording starts, you can hear the crowd's intensity right away. With every Phish show consisting of a different setlist, each gig can feel like a massive, adrenaline-filled guessing game. As the recording progressed, each song felt like they kept going further and further with each jam, with every track consisting of different climaxes that each broke out into a psychedelic meltdown of sorts. I soon realized that this type of band is a rabbit hole that never ends if you so desire.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the jam band circle is its passionate fans. In the digital age, we have Youtube users uploading their reviews of live shows, people starting their own websites to discuss setlist statistics that dive into every minute of a live performance, fan groups that stretch across every imaginable social media platform, and chat rooms that concern all of the above. When surfing the Phish subreddit, I stumbled upon a thread discussing the previous year's annual New Year's show, with a Reddit user that had updated the setlist in real-time from the show's beginning to end. Since many jam bands have attained quite a bit of fame, a large sum of them have started livestreaming their live shows, making it accessible for fans to see the band's shows from the comfort of their own homes.
When the omicron variant surged on the globe at the end of 2021, rapidly rising cases of the virus threatened to do away with live music once more in the final days of 2021, so much as to cause the beloved Phish New Years Run in New York City to be canceled for reasons that we've all become too familiar with. In the run's place, Phish treated fans with a 3 set performance inside The 9th Cube, an audience-less livestreamed show that showed Phish isn't stopping for anything, even a global pandemic that threatens to beat the live music lifestyle into submission. This performance comes after rising stars Connecticut's Goose performed their also audience free "Bingo Tour," shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic began. This series of shows were performed alongside heaps of unique content, including yoga sessions, cooking shows, and bingo games that would tell the band which song to perform next in their virtual set. This kind of content gives the jam band scene the identity that it has, carrying the already massive culture into the future with many different innovations. Some would call it fan service on the band’s part, but that would belittle how much these artists care about their fanbase, and showcases their ability to keep people coming back.
Digital presence aside, the modern jam band sphere is carrying on many traditions the Grateful Dead popularized. Many bands still have flea markets and vendors out in the parking lots before shows, a practice that has long time been dubbed "Shakedown," where many fans gather together to sell jewelry, clothes, and food that the show's attendees prepare in the parking lot. I witnessed my first “Shakedown” when I saw my first Phish show in July of 2021. With said traditions still alive and well, there's no doubt that this type of music will still have a place in the world for a long time, and there's no telling what new traditional innovations we will see for years to come.
To start with this type of music, you need to know a few things. First of all, the concerts usually stretch nearly 3 hours for a single band bill, split in half with the traditional "Set Break," an intermission time that usually lets concert-goers take a restroom break, concession stand run, or just a time to mingle with other concert-goers about the show thus far. With this in mind, jam band shows are usually an all-evening affair, making them a one-stop shop for a fun-filled evening of, for lack of a better term, shenanigans.
As stated earlier, this scene is a rabbit hole that can exist in many ways. Tons of other fans have taken on roles of archiving and recording every show the band plays, no matter how big or small. These recordings can end up on phone applications such as Relisten and Live Music Archive, both available as Smart Phone Applications and Websites alike. Some bands have even created applications, with soundboard audio uploading almost immediately after the band leaves the stage. To be frank, this music is an acquired taste. Some people argue the jams never go anywhere. Some say these artists are doing nothing but indulging themselves, not the audience. Still, there's a lot to be taken from this music, and there's much to be learned as you study what makes people flock to stadiums all over the nation to see their favorite band perform.
So, what are you waiting for? Dive into the world of jam music! It's a surreal journey that has much to be discovered.