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Richard Nesberg
The State of Jam Bands

Despite the debate over what exactly constitutes a jam band, it can be agreed that the movement began in San Francisco in the 1960s under the pioneering sounds of the Grateful Dead. And depending on how old you are the term “jam band” will conjure a different meaning. For baby-boomers, the Dead will instantly fall into place. For younger generations, acts like Phish, and more recently, The String Cheese Incident, Big Wu, and Disco Biscuits come to mind. Spawning from these later bands is even newer sounds like STS9, Pnuma Trio, and Umphrey’s McGee. No matter what act you equate with jam bands you will no doubt carry a special feeling for the movement, a cultural force rooted in the underground that has fostered a subculture community from the very nature of its mostly non-commercial status. Pivotal to the success of these groups are festivals, multi-day extravaganzas featuring dozens of bands, those with huge cult followings like Widespread Panic to others with respectable listenership. Throughout the States there are numerous epicenters that attract thousands of concert-goers annually as well as specific venues which are known to host jam band fests throughout the year. One such festival, the 10,000 Lakes festival (10K), is the big name event held in my home state, in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. A recent slogan for 10K was, “Music, Nature, Euphoria,” and this adequately sums up the experience shared by those who attend. Of course there are the bands which play throughout the four-day experience, but one can also enjoy the fruits of Northern Minnesota by camping, relaxing at the lake or riding in a canoe, with plenty of wildlife to boot, and key to festival life is the ability to binge on whatever drug/s you please, hence where “Euphoria” comes into play—or you can get high on life. Festivals are not merely a hedonistic adventure though, there is growing attention to activism, mostly centered on environmental awareness but also to research for various incurable diseases, all of which harkens back to the roots of jam bands in the 60s where political and social issues took precedent in the generation’s conscience. Similarly to that period, artisans and artists gather to showcase their work and perhaps make a little cash from interested people. All of these features of festival life culminate into a genuinely communal atmosphere, a place where everyone feels like they are a part of something larger, as a group, where they can enjoy the company of other likeminded people who are into the same music, same activities, same love. Driving this bond is the fact that virtually none of the music can be found in the mainstream media, albeit for college radio stations, the bands and sounds are an unique possession that people wearing Abercrombie & Fitch and watching Total Request Live can not only not touch, they are not even aware of its existence. In an era where it is plain to see the lack of artistic talent in popular music—the polluted airwaves of repetitive rap, American Idol worship, and emo-cry-and-whine-about-teenage-crap-while-making-a-ton-of-cash-in-the-process—at least there are some jam bands, and their followers, that remember what good music actually is and can keep the positive spirit from the 60s alive in our consciousness.

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