Improvisation is the life-blood of the live music world. Night after night, fans attend shows across the country searching for “it”. “It” is the ultimate jam, the unmissable improv, the once-in-a-lifetime moment that can only be experienced live and in person. Fans search for these moments for years, generations even, searching for the musician or band that touches their soul with their exploratory improvisation. Whether you like bluegrass, jazz, or metal, there is a “jam” out there waiting for you, if you’re so inclined.
As we are solidly entrenched in (to my estimation) the 4th generation of the so-called jam band scene, it’s difficult to look at bands like Turkuaz and Twiddle, as well as upstarts like Spafford, The Magic Beans, Aqueous, and Mungion and not be excited about the direction of this scene that is decidedly centered around exploratory, full-band improvisation. With the resurgence of jazz as a mainstream genre, artists like Robert Glasper Experiment, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Snarky Puppy have brought jamming to the masses, racking up Grammy awards and critical acclaim along the way. Bands like Umphrey’s McGee, STS9, and String Cheese Incident are festival headliners around the country, having taken the improv world to a new level by bringing metal, electronic music, and bluegrass, respectively, into the fold. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at how we got here.
The jam band scene has come a long way since the Grateful Dead got people up and dancing in the mid 1960s, and it’s always nice to better understand our history. So below, we bring you a few chunks of musical history from the Grateful Dead, Phish, and The Disco Biscuits. Watch the music move from the folky americana of the Dead to the progressive whimsy of Phish, before the Disco Biscuits took the progressive genre and turned it on its head with a heavy electronic influence. Each new phase found a band that wanted to build on their predecessor, while also differentiating themselves through musical experimentation.
Born out of the country, folk, and americana music of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Grateful Dead combined these heartfelt and emotional styles with the psychedelia of the San Francisco music scene to create a musical movement. The band started as a rock ‘n’ roll band, always maintaining that element as they grew into a touring behemoth, however, it was the improvisational excitement of jazz music that the band’s fans would latch on to, traveling the country in an attempt to catch all of the moments and highlights that they could.
The Dead also basically created the modern day live concert experience, adding lights and really loud sound systems to the equation so they could play for more-and-more of their flock of dedicated fans. The band had a memorable chemistry that can still be seen today, with the Dead & Company and Phil Lesh & Friends offshoots that still play to packed audiences all over the country.
Check out these three videos below that show the band evolving over the course of their 30 years together. There’s a version of “Viola Lee Blues” recorded in San Francisco in 1966 (one year after the band formed), a full set from Red Rocks on 7/8/78, and then a version of “Dancin’ In The Streets”>” Bertha” from 8/27/85. From 1966-1985 you can clearly see the band changing and evolving.
video provided by the Grateful Dead
video provided by YouTube user nognuisagoodnu
video provided by YouTube user J. Clooless
Phish took the experimental, improvisational energy of the Grateful Dead, added the progressive fireworks of Genesis, and the funky influence of bands like Little Feat and The Meters, to create an entirely new genre of music. While the Grateful Dead were the godfathers of improvisational rock, Phish are possibly the kings, having pushed themselves in their jamming to heights previously unseen in the world of rock music.
Phish was really out there, only truly comparable with a jazz fusion band… They spent hours rehearsing their improvisational segments when not on tour, and they pushed themselves outside of the box whenever they could, leading fans to even develop a code to talk about what kind of jams they were playing. As they grew from a college band to a regional band and, eventually, into the touring powerhouse we know and love today, the band developed more and more ways to deliver improv to their audience, eventually leaving behind the typical “jam song” and inserting jams into unexpected places.
Dead fans knew that “Dark Star” meant jamming, but not every improv vehicle that Phish has in its arsenal gets the treatment each show. Sometimes “Down With Disease” is a rager, and sometimes they stretch the four-minute “The Moma Dance” into a seventeen-minute, melodic psychedelic-funk freak-out. Sometimes “Tweezer” gets weaved throughout a whole show, and one song doesn’t contain a “featured” jam. Sometimes the whole show is the featured jam.
Check out these three videos below that show Phish developing their skills as an improvisational band over the years. First, there’s a poor-quality video (though good quality audio!) of Phish performing at The Ranch in Burlington, VT on 5/20/87, the full first set from Phish’s 12/29/97 show at Madison Square Garden, and “Tweezer”>”Prince Caspian” from Magnaball on 8/22/15.
video provided by YouTube user SpaceTimeTeleportal
video provided by YouTube User The Phish Jams
video provided by Phish
The Disco Biscuits
The Disco Biscuits picked up on Phish’s exploratory style and injected it with steroids. The Biscuits are no strangers to exploration, constantly keeping their fans on their toes with a wild style of improvisation that could come from anywhere at any time. The band will often play their songs chopped up and mixed around, calling it “inverse” (when a song is played with its sections in reverse order) “dyslexic” (when a song is played with its distinct sections out of order) or a “palindrome” (when a series of songs are broken up and re-arranged to read the same backward or forward, such as “Caterpillar”>”Digital Buddha”>”Orch Theme”>”Digital Buddha”>”Caterpillar”). The band use these techniques to create new pockets that they can fill with improvisation, and they are constantly switching it up to keep things interesting for themselves and their fans.
The Biscuits are another band that constantly attempt to push the envelope, first by infusing electronic music into their sound, then continuing to add elements of hip hop and funk and an improvisational style that is completely unique.
Watch these three videos of the Disco Biscuits from throughout their career. There’s a full show from 5/1/99 and the old favorite venue Wetlands Preserve, a set from 7/19/2007 at the 10,000 Lakes Festival, and a portion of their infamous Tron set from this past New Year’s Eve.
video courtesy of YouTube user Rich Steele
video provided by YouTube user Altoid Dealer
video provided by YouTuve user Josh
As a bonus, check out these bands mixing it up with each other, with Trey Anastasio of Phish playing with The Grateful Dead at last summer’s Fare Thee Well concerts, and the Disco Biscuits performing a set of material with Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart at Gathering of the Vibes 2014
video provided by YouTube user LazyLightning55a
video provided by YouTube user mkdevo
If you liked reading about the history of jamming, you’ll love our upcoming show “The Evolution of Jam, Vol. 2”, which will feature cover bands performing the music of The Grateful Dead (Reckoning), Phish (Uncle Ebenezer), and the Disco Biscuits (Tractorbear) at The Hall at MP on Friday October 7th, and running as a late night show after Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at the Brooklyn Bowl. You can get tickets to the “Evolution of Jam, Vol. 2” at this link