A genuine grassroots musical movement appeared in the 1990's that was virtually ignored by the mainstream for most of the decade. It came to be called the "jam band" scene, and while everybody associated with it hates the term, it stuck. JAMerica: The History of the Jam Band and Festival Scenes by Peter Connors is the first jam band book I have ever seen, and it is long overdue.
While Phish are probably the most famous jam band, there are many more. Some other fairly well-known groups include Widespread Panic, The Dave Matthews Band, and Blues Traveler. There are also bands which are apparently widely respected by the faithful, but are probably little more than funny names to many of us. A couple of these are Leftover Salmon and Umphree's McGee. Naturally enough, the golden road of devotion for all of the jam bands stretches back to the Grateful Dead.
In what little mainstream media coverage I have seen about these groups, it is as if all of the old Grateful Dead stereotypes have been resurrected, verbatim. The hoary clichés about endless, rambling solos, hippies in need of a bath, copious amounts of drugs, free love, and way too much patchouli abound in articles (supposedly) about the music.
It is refreshing that Conners, who is a self-described "jam band junkie," does not really refute these allegations, except when it comes to the music. It seems like it took the death of Jerry Garcia for people to actually go back and listen to the music that the Dead created onstage. Thankfully much of it was recorded, and I have listened to some of the Dick's Picks collections, and have been blown away by what they were doing.
I just wonder if this will be the case with the jam bands. It is maddening that people who are turned off by the hippie trappings dismiss the music as so much crap. I am ashamed to admit that I was probably influenced by this a bit myself. Conners is right, let the music speak for itself.
As I mentioned, this is an oral history, and the list of interviewees at the back of the book is impressive, with over 80 people. A few of these include Trey Anastasio, Bob Weir, Perry Farrell, Ivan Neville, John Popper, and Taj Mahal. Obviously that is just a tiny sample of the many individuals who contributed to the book.
My only real criticism of JAMerica is that I am not usually a fan of the oral history format. Having said that, what with so many interviews and perspectives, I think that doing an oral history was probably the best choice. So many of these groups have received such little mainstream attention that presenting their thoughts in their own words offers us a much better glimpse than a basic narrative would.
There is a world of great music being made by these groups, and quite a scene to boot, JAMerica is a good place to start in getting to know just what is going on there.