Sept. 2, 2004
by BOB DORAN
THE TERM "JAM BAND" IS AN ILL-DEFINED LABEL APPLIED to a wide range of improvisational music, everything from the New Orleans funk jazz of Galactic, to the liquid guitar excursions of Steve Kimock. Knowing that musicians don't generally appreciate having any label attached to their work, the Journal asked Kimock and members of some of the other touring jammers headed this way about the current state of the jam band scene.
"I get asked about the state of the jam band scene all the time," said Kimock, calling from his home in Pennsylvania. "It used to make me angry -- I've been out there with my nose against the grindstone, starving for 20 years playing instrumental music, then someone comes along and goes, `Oh, you're a jam band.' I'm like, `Well, whatever.' It's not like I hopped on a bandwagon or something."
You could say Kimock was part of the jam band scene before it started. As lead guitarist for Zero, formed at the end of the '70s, he set some of the standards for instrumental jazz-tinged rock and went on to tour with the post-Garcia configurations of the Grateful Dead: the Other Ones and Phil and Friends, later playing with the all-star KVHW before forming the Steve Kimock Band, headliners for the upcoming Trinity Tribal Stomp, Sept. 10-12. Kimock also plays at Earthdance (Sept. 17-19) with the Everyone Orchestra.
"What do I think of the relative health of the scene?" he continued. "Given that the economy seems to be in the tank it seems pretty good. There are a lot of great acts out there; I don't know that the music they're playing has much to do with what all the other bands [in the scene] are playing."
Kimock figures what the bands share is an audience, one that is open to a wide range of music. "They just want to see some music, to have a good time. It's about having a community, getting together, getting out of the house and away from work to enjoy some music. I'm all for that. And the bands run the gamut in terms of musical styles, which is great. So overall, I think the scene is in pretty good shape."
We caught up with Global Funk Council organist Anthony Smith when he was finishing up load-in at a club in Missoula, Mont., a college town where the four-piece neo-boogaloo combo has a strong fan base.
"I think the future of the jam band scene is no different from the future of live music in general," he said. "There's a lot of panic right now because it was a slow summer. Not only did Lollapalooza get canceled, but a lot of the big names in the jam band scene saw their numbers fall.
"The scene has changed a lot since I got into it around 2000 -- there was a feeling then that the jam band frontier was a wide open expanse of uncharted territory. I jumped in whole-heartedly believing that, but have since seen it dwindle as America suffered a general crisis of the arts.
"You can attribute that to a few things: One would be the tension in our country right now. People are not as footloose and fancy free as they might be if they weren't troubled over the upcoming election and the perception of the U.S in the rest of the world. I really think these things have direct ramifications on what we do as artists."
Like most in the jam band scene, Global Funk has toured throughout the nation. But they found that building an audience far from home is not an easy thing, Smith said. "We've been all over, but for now we're sticking to the Western states, trying to establish a foothold." The band's current tour will bring them back to their Bay Area homebase before long, but first, they play at Mazzotti's Wednesday, Sept. 8, after radio visits to KMUD (10 a.m. Sept. 6) and KHUM (11 a.m. Sept. 7).
When I spoke with Flowmotion guitarist Josh Clauson, the band was on vacation after a successful Alaskan tour, and he was on his way to Burning Man. Next week the Seattle-based band reunites for a California tour that brings them to Muddy Waters on Wednesday, Sept. 8, jamming in direct competition with Global Funk Council.
"The term jam band has been so generalized," Clauson complained. "Everybody's a jam band; it's a satellite radio term now. Of course Phish is a jam band, they started this thing, along with the Grateful Dead. I don't know why they use the term for some bands; us included. I suppose it differentiates from say a singer-songwriter band, but with Flowmotion, you'll hear both. We might play a 15-minute jam, then you'll hear three or four singer-songwriter tunes."
Clauson praises the openness of the jam band audience who will go see Yonder Mountain String band play twisted bluegrass one night, then go see Albino! play Feli Kuti-style Afrobeat the next.
"The scene is transforming, and we're talking about a monstrous realm, bands playing all sorts of music. Our band has been getting into African rhythms and the whole Afrobeat thing, incorporating horns. We've been going with the term `world funk' which is just as cheesy as jam band, but it's a way to entice the audience."
Guitarist Will Bernard doesn't particularly like the term jam band either. "I don't like being pigeon-holed, but I guess it's an easy way for people to understand what they're going to hear, that we're not going to play Goth music or something. In the early days, the '90s or whatever, they called this music `acid jazz' -- that was worse."
Bernard keeps busy playing with numerous bands in addition to his own, Motherbug. When I called him at his Albany home, he was preparing for a short Motherbug tour and for a weekend gig with The Big E, with Bobby Vega and Ray White (the "V" and "W" from KVHW). He also plays for a new band, Frequinox, with drummer Stanton Moore from Galactic and organist Robert Walter, leader of 20th Congress. (Bernard, who played guitar for 20th Congress for a couple of years, brings Motherbug to Six Rivers Brewery Thursday, Sept. 9.) "Most of the bands serve a similar function," he continued. "Frequinox is kind of a funk jazz thing for people who like to dance and carry on; Motherbug is like that too. What's been going on with the whole jam band scene, with everybody playing with everybody else, the music has become more spontaneous. When you put a band together at the drop of a hat and do a gig, you have to rely on what you can come up with on stage. It can also be really boring when you have people taking 20-minute solos, but when it clicks, it's great."
Bernard's Frequinox bandmate, Stanton Moore, plays with his main band, Galactic, Thursday. Sept. 2, at HSU's Kate Buchanan Room. "I guess you could say a lot of the music I do is groove based -- and improvisational to one degree or another," said Moore, who doesn't necessarily see the music he plays as jazz. "It's based in improvisation -- and it definitely has roots in jazz -- but we improvise over funk or different types of Latin grooves. I don't like to get too label conscious -- we just play the music we play. Call it whatever you like."
Details on these shows and the jam band scene in general can be found online at www.jambase.com, where the motto is, "Go see live music!"
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.