This past weekend, while witnessing the sheer brilliance of The String Cheese Incident putting on a clinic at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (they were inducted into the Red Rocks Hall of Fame on Friday night, just to note), I took a second to think about the various major events in the jam scene that were happening all over the country. Phish at The Gorge, Dead & Company at Fenway Park, Widespread Panic in Oakland, Umphrey’s McGee headlining the Great South Bay Music Festival and the Stone Pony, Bob Weir sitting in with Paul McCartney in Boston, Mike Gordon playing with Phil Lesh, The Disco Biscuits hosting their annual Camp Bisco with STS9, Lotus, Lettuce and the New Deal all performing… Putting this all into perspective, I came to the realization that we are truly in the midst of a full-on “Jam Renaissance,” if you will.
While most of these acts, outside of the fairly recent formation of Dead & Company, have been touring on a somewhat consistent basis, it can be argued that the level of play hasn’t been at such a high level collectively in years. And that doesn’t just go for the bigger name acts that we so often relate to the jam world. Bands like Twiddle, TAUK, Greensky Bluegrass, Dopapod, Turkuaz, Papadosio, The Werks, Tom Hamilton’s American Babies, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and the likes, are carving out names and solid fan bases for themselves, and deservedly so. They are not only bringing new, stylistically original music to the table, but they are also playing at high levels of musicianship.
And this certainly isn’t about any one show, in particular, but more so about the overall technical consistency and musical originality that each band is currently displaying at this time. But for the sake of the argument, let’s just take a look at the “major” bands of the jam scene.
Phish. By all accounts, this past weekend’s run at The Gorge was a front-to-back success. The jams were tight and cohesive, with plenty of interplay and teases (especially on Friday night) to keep fans on their toes. But, for all intents and purposes, you could date that sentiment back to last summer, when everything between Trey, Gordo, Page, and Fish seemingly clicked once again. It was a moment that many of us had been waiting for since “3.0” began, and as far as consistency, it was mid-way through last summer’s tour, though some would argue that the actual moment that everything coalesced was during that epic “Tahoe Tweezer” back in 2013 where “The Boys Are Back!” moment happened. Add that to the fact that all members of the Vermont Quartet are happy, hanging out, and constantly smiling on stage, any doubts of Phish keeping things going in the near future should easily be dispelled.
Phish “Makisupa Policeman, Wilson, Good Times Bad Times” Encore – Gorge Ampitheatre, George, WA 7/15/16, courtesy of Tom Rowles:
Dead & Company. The formation of this group, with the official announcement coming on the heels of the historic Fare Thee Well shows at Soldier Field, many fans didn’t know what to expect with the naming of John Mayer taking the lead. It’s not easy to step into Jerry’s spot on stage, with his ever-looming shadow (which is more fan created than anything else) hovering over every minute detail that Mayer’s deft playing can clearly handle. But to do so in such convincing fashion, with relative ease, and making a legion of new fans of the Deadhead faithful, is beyond anyone’s initial expectations. Add the brilliant Oteil Burbridge on bass, Jeff Chimenti on keys, to the trifecta of Bob Weir, Billy Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart, and Dead & Company have been nothing short of a phenomenon. The only question, at this point, is in how long this lineup will actually continue.
Dead & Company “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” at Folsom Field – Boulder, CO 7/3/16, courtesy of Dear Marie BR:
The String Cheese Incident. What cannot be said of SCI? Not only is the band locked in at the moment, with this past weekend’s Red Rocks run as clear evidence with three mind-bending shows, but they are still writing new music that is actually really good and translates seamlessly into the live setting. With their new formula of releasing singles as they are written and recorded from their recently built Sound Lab, as opposed to sitting on the tunes or playing them out in the live setting before ever being released in the standard album format, this is some serious sharp Cheese. And with hosting events such as Electric Forest and Suwannee Hulaween, creating those all-inclusive environments that SCI has been known for over the years, has been another essential element to their continued success since their return from hiatus. Arguably the most stylistically diverse of all the jam acts, SCI is still building momentum as they near their 25th year of existence.
The String Cheese Incident – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO 7/16/16 – courtesy of taper Cheese Cadet Audio:
The Disco Biscuits. Like the above acts, The Disco Biscuits have certainly had their ups and downs over the years; but after truly cementing a balanced strategy on touring, multi-night runs, and festival appearances, to say the group is invigorated would be a gross understatement. The last two years for the Philly-based act has seen some of the most consistent playing from all four members in their entire career, especially guitarist Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig. When he is on, you can count on the music transcending. The jamming that has been witnessed as of late is out of this world. There really isn’t a group in the scene that takes the improvisational chances that the Biscuits do, playing entire sets with absolutely no stops. Their unique ability to invert songs is often overlooked by those outside of the Bisco faithful. While they coined the term ‘trance-fusion’, they are a pure jamband at heart.
The Disco Biscuits – The Capitol Theatre – Port Chester, NY 3/26/16 (taped by Jesse Hurlburt):
Umphrey’s McGee. Probably the most legitimately consistent band in the jam scene in the last decade. With their prog-rock heavy style and innate ability to communicate through the music, the gentlemen of Umphrey’s easily deserve a place on this list amongst the top tier in the jam scene. Playing 100+ shows a year, and playing at the high level that they have, day in and day out, is a commendable feat. From the outside perspective, it certainly doesn’t look like there has been much of a change in attitude with the band, considering the expanding families of each member, yet their ability to still hit the road at the level in which they do can only be seen as increasingly positive.
Umphrey’s McGee – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO 7/2/16 – courtesy of TheSoberGoat:
Widespread Panic. Currently celebrating their 30th Anniversary, the Athens, GA-based rockers have decided to scale things back starting next year, but are still hitting it out of the ballpark in the live setting. You would think that after losing founding member and lead guitarist Michael Houser back in 2002, it would have spelled disaster for Panic. But fast-forward to 2016, after some bumps and bruises along the way, and you’ll see John Bell and company have been on a recent tear. And who doesn’t like to rock out to Jimmy Herring shredding a guitar solo? And with the youthful drive and presence of drummer Duane Trucks on stage, there’s truly something to be said about the state of Panic in 2016. If you haven’t recently, go see them live — before they pump the breaks in 2017.
Widespread Panic “Conrad” – The Wiltern – Los Angleles, CA 7/16/16, courtesy of MrTopdogger:
STS9. It’s nothing new….band members come and go, with new one’s having to fill the void of past. STS9 is no different. After the departure of founding bassist David Murphy, Alana Rocklin stepped in to the role, and the group quickly found a synergy with the super talented bass player (who had performed with the band on several occasions over the years). The instrumental livetronica act has once again found their groove and are taking no prisoners, serving up some serious dance-driven beats to go along with a consistent approach towards activism and change. Whether it is the full live set, or their special “Axe The Cables” stripped down version, STS9 is still a force to be reckoned with.
Lotus. Similar to Umphrey’s McGee, Lotus has also been one of the most consistent bands in the jam scene, playing upwards of 100+ shows a year for well over ten years, while building a grassroots fan base through constant touring and the release of new music. And when drummer Mike Greenfield joined the group several years back, it seemed the progressive and post-rock tendencies of Lotus were amplified and the band has witnessed a distinct upwards trajectory ever since.
Lotus – Catskill Chill Music Festival 2013 – Full Set:
Lettuce. The new-age masters of funk have truly changed the game over the last twenty years. They are literally writing their own chapter in the Book of Funk and have been one of those crossover bands that have led the EDM scene to embrace those soulful and funky beats, while bringing a strong incorporation of horns into their own music. Members of Lettuce play in Soulive, Pretty Lights Live Band, and Break Science, amongst others, while the group has collaborated with guitarist Derek Trucks, producer GRiZ, virtually every funk musician in the collective scene of New Orleans, and many other legendary musicians of our time. Whatever style Lettuce brings to the table, you can bet that they can fit into any situation and there will be some serious jamming going on.
Lettuce – Jam Cruise 2016 – Pantheon Theater – courtesy of FunkItBlog:
Fifteen years ago, outside of the Grateful Dead (and related Dead acts) and Phish, these were all the emerging bands in the jam scene. With these acts now heading into their third decade of existence, and plenty of up-and-comers on their heels, the real question remains what band/s will emerge as the successor to the throne held by the Dead and Phish? With so much saturation in the jam scene, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering the level of play that all of the aforementioned bands display, will we ever see a jam band achieve the heights of popularity that both legendary acts have enjoyed? My leaning is towards no, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. And it also doesn’t discount the sheer amount of incredible music that the jam scene is producing these days. And whether or not that changing of the guard ever occurs, we should take solace in the fact that we are truly witnessing a “Jam Renaissance” right at this very moment, and have a plethora of brilliant artists to choose from and enjoy for a long time to come.
[cover photo courtesy of Jordan Inglee – Visual Suplex – @visualsuplex]