The Other Ones:
A Guide to Recent Jam Band Releases
First Appeared at The Music Box, June/July 2003, Volume 10, #6-7
Written by John Metzger
Ask 100 music fans to define the jam band genre, and one is apt to wind up with just as many definitions. If one looks broadly at the classification, one is apt to include any bands that lean towards on-stage improvisation, which includes everything from pure jazz and bluegrass to straight-forward rock ’n‘ roll. And given that groups such as Phish — an ensemble that is frequently used as the poster child for jam bands — often incorporate carefully orchestrated and pre-scripted segments of progressive rock into their concerts — well, that blows the definition so wide-open as to make it a rather useless marketing gimmick. No wonder the scene is burgeoning. Everyone is considered a jam band.
In reality, one must look back at the forefathers of the genre for a real understanding of what a jam band truly is. This, of course, means that one must explore the potent psychedelic surge of ’60s powerhouses such as the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Cream, Santana, Traffic, and Jimi Hendrix — to name a few. To this day, these artists remain among the finest that the loosely-defined genre has to offer, as each brings a tremendous amount of originality to its musical adventurousness. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, we’ll look at some of the groups that, for better or for worse, consider themselves to be jam bands.
There are currently at least three bands touring under the name Higher Ground, and if one them achieves some level of success, the lawsuits almost certainly will begin to fly. In the meantime, the Portland, Oregon-based ensemble has released its fifth outing — a fifteen-song concert recording titled Sandstorm. Throughout the disc, the band blends a variety of roots-music concepts steeped in bluegrass convention á la Leftover Salmon. Higher Ground is clearly at its best when it keeps the music concise — as it does on the fiery country-rock of Flood and the bluegrass-inflected groove of the traditional On & On. On these tunes, the band’s instrumental talent shines brightly. Indeed, the more that Higher Ground expands its songs, the more boring they inevitably become. The Little Feat-fueled romp Bayou Saturday Night fares well enough as does the gentle Allman Brothers Band-meets-Pure Prairie League grazing of Concrete Highway. But as tracks like the traditional Freeborn Man and original Hellbone push closer to the seven-minute mark, the band seemingly falls short of ideas to keep its melodies aloft. ½
Psychedelic Breakfast may have begun its career with a predilection for covering songs by classic rock artists such as Frank Zappa, Santana, the Allman Brothers, and Pink Floyd, but five years and a handful of albums later finds that although the group is now penning its own tunes, it barely has progressed. Indeed, the best track on its latest release Bona Fide is a cover of the classic Allman Brothers Band instrumental Hot ’Lanta. It’s a fiery rendition, for sure, but it adds little to the song’s storied past. Elsewhere Psychedelic Breakfast takes an Allman-Brothers-Band-meets-Frank Zappa bent on both Drunk Monk Bar and Spunk. But more often than not, the group draws from the worst aspects of Phish, complete with pointless lyrics, ridiculous song titles — do we really need tunes called Taboo or Not Taboot or worse Wild Pack of Asscracks? — and go-nowhere progressive rock-influenced "jams." Bona Fide was recorded in concert, and there’s little doubt that this material would work better there than it does on disc. Regardless, the album merely proves that Psychedelic Breakfast is little more than bar band with a cool name.
All Mighty Senators
Music Is Big Business
(Dog Eat Dog)
No, All Mighty Senators is not the name of John Ashcroft’s congressional vocal group, although the world certainly would be a better place if he sang the environmentally-friendly tune Mother Nature’s Afro. Or, at least, life in the U.S.A. would be a whole lot funnier if only he’d take a stab at rapping, "I’m a giant robot coming after you/Spank you on the hiney from here to Timbuktu," while placing half the country under arrest. Instead, these strange insights come from the Washington D.C.-based funk and soul outfit that was hand-picked by Chrissie Hynde to support The Pretenders on its recent tour. The group’s latest album Music Is Big Business is unquestionably its best to date; it’s full of slinky grooves that combine Sly Stone’s free-wheeling psychedelic soul with The Roots’ jazz-inflected rap, while tossing in a fair amount of blues-rock for good measure. A case certainly could be made that All Mighty Senators shouldn’t be lumped in with the rest of the jam band brigade, yet that’s exactly the conglomerate with which it is most often associated, largely because its early efforts featured some sprawling, bloated material. Though the group utilizes many of the same elements featured by other long-winded outfits, All Mighty Senators pulls them all together into something far more cohesive and focused than the rest of the pack. In other words, Music Is Big Business should go a long way towards changing that misguided perception, finding the band a much wider, and more mainstream, audience.
Music Is Big Business is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
The Codetalkers with Col. Bruce Hampton
Around Atlanta, Col. Bruce Hampton is a bit of a legend. As leader of the Hampton Grease Band in the late ’60s, he recorded the region’s response to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Several decades later, he emerged once again to front Aquarium Rescue Unit, making a minor dent in the jam band scene. Indeed, the group is more widely known today than it was then, given that two of its members — Oteil Burbridge and Jimmy Herring — have gone on, respectively, to join the Allman Brothers Band and The Dead.
Hampton’s latest project is as a member of The Codetalkers, but longtime fans will want to be cognizant of the "with Col. Bruce Hampton" notation. The band is clearly in the hands of guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers who wrote an overwhelming majority of the songs and produced this release. For certain, Hampton’s oddball quirkiness is present on Rice Clients as well as a remake of Isles of Langerhan, and it can also be felt within Rodgers’ own compositions, such as the jazz-blues fusion of UFO and the Latin-funk of Lima. Elsewhere, however, the group loses the campiness, and the results are far more satisfying. Beggin’ is a Blasters-style barroom rocker that seamlessly slips into airy bluegrass-pop; Did My Time is a bucolic stoner anthem; and Skip James’ classic I’m So Glad is turned into a perfectly ebullient amalgamation of styles, while Saturn draws heavily from the alt-rock of INXS. It’s on these tracks that the band’s instrumental prowess isn’t undermined by its own abrasive insanity. ½
Sweet Oblivious Antidote
There’s something hypnotic about the music contained on Perpetual Groove’s recently released Sweet Oblivious Antidote. It can be found within the joyful guitar that climbs above the churning beats of Three Weeks or the adherence of guitar to keyboards in the frequent sequences of elegant dance scattered throughout the rest of the album. And, as one would expect, its songs tend to blend together, flowing one into another to create a full-fledged musical suite. Yes, Perpetual Groove definitely lives up to its name, and that is both a blessing and a curse. There are moments when the sonic swirl seems never ending, destined to grind on forever in endless repetition. But the band’s ambitions are high, and shades of the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and most often Phish are sprinkled throughout its electronica-textured tunes. Much of Sweet Oblivious Antidote contains progressive-rock style instrumentals, but the inclusion of several lyrical pieces helps to keep the monotony at bay.
Sweet Oblivious Antidote is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
Were it not for the funk-rock rhythms driving most of its songs, Mood Food very well might be considered a jazz ensemble. Using the fusion style of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew as a starting point, the band shifts from percolating rhythms to swirling sonic arrangements as a means of transporting the listener into another space and time. For its latest outing Human Zoo, Mood Food has strayed from its instrumental beginnings and now incorporates faux stream-of-consciousness lyrics, while burying its vocals deep within its aural assault. This undoubtedly is an attempt to reach a wider audience, and for the most part, it’s a rather benign extension, though sometimes it does detract from the power of the presentation, particularly when taken in conjunction with the group’s often frivolous song titles. Despite this, Mood Food is a band that is quite serious about its improvisational creativity. As a result, the group is at its best when it just sits back and allows the music carry it away.
Stages: Where the Music Plays the Band
There are nearly as many jam band compilations as there are jam bands themselves, and these aggregations continue to be a better value than the offerings of any of the individual artists. After all, many of these groups are largely one-dimensional, and the multi-band collections usually move on to something different before becoming overly tedious. Such is the case with Stages: Where the Music Plays the Band, which includes selections from Umphrey’s McGee, The Big Wu, Uncle Sammy, Particle, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and Netwerk: Electric. Of these, The Big Wu probably has the greatest name recognition, and its three-song excursion finds the band doing what it does well — turning progressive and classic rock riffs into catchy pop tunes. Indeed, it’s The Big Wu’s material that fares best as the group’s music frequently transcends the compilation while borrowing from The Band on Makebelievers; from Bo Diddley, the Grateful Dead, and Little Feat on Shoot the Moon; and from Phish on Texas Fireball. The worst moments belong to Uncle Sammy, whose contribution — a 27-minute bit of self-absorbed, self-indulgent fodder — is largely insufferable. Elsewhere, Umphrey’s McGee dances its way through its moe.-meets-Phish-meets-metal material with charming alacrity; Particle gets redundantly trance-y on its twin instrumentals Ed & Molly and Ghost Highway Jam; Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey dives headfirst into a free-form jazz maelstrom on a trilogy of tunes; and Netwerk: Electric merges soft fusion (think Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way) with Southern rock (think the Allman Brothers Band) with surprisingly good results. It’s no surprise that all of this material is largely derivative in nature, and none of it truly breaks new ground. But by scattering music from six bands over two discs, the album’s mini-sets allow one to sample the jam band platter without having to invest in any single course.
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box