It’s the first of August once again and today we celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday.
This year, I’d like to share with you a video of one of the many great moments I had the fortune to experience live. This version of Shining Star by The Manhattans was performed by the Jerry Garcia Band at Hampton Coliseum on November 19, 1993. It’s a slow song but was deeply moving to be present as the audience sang to Jerry and he sang back to us. Put this on and enjoy.
Grandma Sparrow is a new project from Megafaun’s drummer, Joe Westerlund.
It’s a wild, trippy, work that runs more akin to 200 Motels Zappa than what you might expect from Megafaun. Sporting costumes to represent various characters in the lysergic nursery school narrative, Westerlund leads the band and the audience on a wacky journey that must be witnessed.
The band that Joe has backing him is killer (Canine Heart Sounds from Durham, NC) and their efforts reveal that this is no lark of a comedy show. The music is serious and swings quickly from what could be a psychedelic spin on Alice Cooper, “This Is My Wheelhouse”, to a “Twelve Tone Lullaby”. Watch for these guys to come around.
Check out a track here.
Next up was Megafaun. They’ve basically been on hiatus while each guy does their own thing and, aside from these dates this week, that hiatus isn’t over any time soon. So this was special. Their old friend Justin Vernon (Bon Iver (in case you live under rocks)) had pulled them together for a thing this weekend and they turned it a week of rehearsals, hanging out, and three public shows. (Tonight they play Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, NY. If you can go, GO.)
The four piece band took the stage with Brad and Justin switching off bass & guitar throughout the night. I’m not going to pretend to be an objective rock journalist here. I love this band and I’ve gotten to know these guys a little bit and I could not be more biased. They played great songs and they fun they had on stage radiated out into the crowd who was also having a great time and watched rather attentively.
Amid a selection of their best original songs they gave us a great cover of The Band’s “Ain’t No More Cane” and Ry Cooder’s “Boomer’s Story”. The latter featured dual slide guitars from Justin and Phil and was, simply terrific. Late in the set, Matthew E. White was called to the stage. (I’ve raved about his album on this blog and he produced the Grandma Sparrow record for his Spacebomb label.) With White and Vernon on guitar, and Phil Cook manning the keys, the band played through a playful version of “His Robe”, a spacey reading of “Real Slow” and a blistering performance of “Kaufman’s Ballad” to close the set.
The five-piece band left the stage and only the three core members returned for the encore. Phil brought his banjo, Brad his Martin acoustic, and Joe brought only his voice. The plugs were out, microphones set aside, adn the band sang a heartfelt version of “Worried Mind” from the stage lip accompanied by the audience for the final choruses.
So ended a special night of music that I, for one, will treasure for some time.
DC9 – Washington, DC
Grandma Sparrow opening
Ain’t No More Cane
You Are The Light
Unchained (sung by J. Vernon)
Justin Vernon on backing vocals & Guitar or bass for the whole show
*Matthew E White on guitar
^Trio only, Acoustic. Phil on Banjo, Brad on guitar.
More pictures of Grandma Sparrow: Here
More pictures of Megafaun: Here
I was turned on to Television in my record shop clerk days by my full-time co-worker and part-time music mentor, Tom S. The band was engaged in a comeback and when their new CD came through, Tom put it in my hands.
“You need to hear this band.” I looked at it. Rykodisc, boring black & white cover, nothing made it stand out. Besides, I was knee deep in my Jazz and Grateful Dead roots studies.
I asked, “Why?”
“This is their new thing which is okay but after you listen to this you’ve got to find their other stuff because it’s basically punk rock with guitar solos. You’d like it.”
“I thought punk rockers hated bands with guitar solos,” I said.
“Listen,” he said.
I took it home and, sure enough, he was right. At a time when I could hardly be drawn to anything with distortion that wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or a shockingly aggressive version of Grateful Dead’s space jamming, I found myself drawn to a punk band. This opened my eyes to the overlapping genres of punk/art punk/garage rock and so much more. Television connected the dots and “Marquee Moon”, though not my favorite Television song¹, it’s definitely the one that changed me.
In 1977, the Grateful Dead played one of their most renowned shows in Ithaca, New York. In New York City, punk rock had broken and was oozing like a blister on the face of rock music. The art crowd had pushed their way into the scene as they always do and groups like The Talking Heads and Patty Smith were leading the way. Television, founded by Tom Verlaine and school chum, Richard Hell, had been around for a couple of years. Hell, it seems, cleaved more closely to certain punk aesthetics including that not mastering one’s instrument and, in ’75, left to form his own group. He was replaced on bass by Fred Smith and from there, things got serious.
In February 1977, “Marquee Moon” came out as a double sided 7″ (it’s far too long for only one side) as well as the title track for the group’s debut album where it clocked in at an unheard-of-for-punk-rock ten minutes. Over several years of on-stage development and a previous studio effort² in the song grew in complexity to become a series of killer riffs and extended solos. Richard Lloyd takes the first solo and Verlaine takes the second with Lloyd’s distinct and creative rhythm playing serving as a dynamic foil along the way.
But the song didn’t peak with the album release. Later live versions (Television was, sadly, not as well documented as a Deadhead would like) include the 14+ minute version found on the album “The Blow Up” which stretches the song to new limits and reveals what Lester Bangs meant when he compared Verlaine’s playing to that of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippolina.³ In some of the longer versions, the band slows and shifts gears for new and varied ideas to emerge from the solos. This is where the true listening is happening. The band stays together as the soloist draws in new ideas changing the face of the song and then, with a cue from drummer Billy Ficca, they swing back into the ascendant closing groove.
Here collide the raw nerves of punk, the desire to experiment with the form and nature of that genre, and the exploratory drive of without-a-net jamming. It was this that hooked me. Twenty years later, Television remains a favorite.
¹: “Elevation” and “The Dream’s Dream” battle for that title.
²: On the Brian Eno produced demo from 1974, the song clocked in around 7 minutes.
³: See Lester Bangs’ “Free Jazz Punk Rock“.
I thought I knew The Byrds: folk-pop darlings, covered Dylan, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, drugs references in pop songs, Gram Parsons, country rock, reunion in the Seventies… But I was wrong. I had missed a critical piece of the puzzle until a good friend showed me the light.
A few years back, as I sat at my friend’s house, sipping a beer and enjoying the warm fireplace, he got up to change the record. His record collection easily surpasses my own and he often tries to stump me with his selections. This time, however, he did not expect to keep me guessing.
“You’ll probably get this one pretty quick but I should tell you that I’m breaking protocol and starting with side two,” he informed me. Listening to albums is serious business and there are rules. This move violated a key regulation but, it’s his house, and his rule to break. “I just love this side so much,” he continued, “I can’t wait.” He dropped the needle and sat down.
A brisk fade-in revealed a band going at it hard. Uptempo drums drove a blend of jangling and crunchy rock guitars with a rapid yet fluid bass line. I should have spotted the song immediately from the early telltale riffs from McGuinn but a conversation about record playing rules diverted my attention just enough that I did not. Instead, I found myself puzzling over Clarence White’s guitar solo and the subsequent bass jam from Skip Battin. I commented on the quality jamming but I could not come up with the band. My friend laughed, surprised that I didn’t know the album.
I don’t have every record. It’s not possible. But I do pride myself on having a selection of excellent jamming from all over the musical spectrum. Not knowing, much less owning, this record began to gnaw at me as I sat, listening and drinking in that pale yellow wingback chair. And then, nearly twelve minutes into the side, McGuinn jumps back in with an unmistakable riff and Rickenbacker tone.
“The Byrds? This is “Eight Miles High”? What album is this?” I asked, getting up to check out the cover.
“(Untitled),” he responded. (He did not pronounce the parentheses but I include them for accuracy.)
I was blown away by this revelation. The Byrds could jam? They took a cool song and expanded it into a tour de force, A ripping jam that veered well enough away from its source to lose a listener but steered directly back into the groove in time to fit the song neatly on an album side. I was sold and I studied the cover, adding it to my mental record-shopping wantlist.
A new love was born.
Jamband music is often pegged as self-indulgent, drug addled, guitar noodling but that’s not entirely fair.
It’s true that among the bands embraced by Jamband fandom, drugs do crop up both on stage and off. And guitar noodling, seemingly aimless streams of notes in search of purchase, certainly does happen. But to call the jams ‘aimless’ is a disservice to the players. A band like Phish doesn’t simply launch into jams unprepared.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s Phish could arguably have been one of the more well-rehearsed bands on the road. And it wasn’t just songs being worked over in the rehearsal space; they developed exercises to train themselves to listen better and to improvise as a unit. These extended practices carried over to the stage and, come the mid-90’s, Phish began transforming 5 minute songs into half-hour explorations. By the late 90’s, entire sets might be devoted to seamless jams between only a handful of songs.
Casual listeners seem to become fatigued by this sort of jamming, preferring to be entertained by a new song every few minutes. One cannot argue matters of taste. (One can but it’s a rather tedious and pointless exercise that can really kill a dinner party.) But the fact that Phish can also play a set of short songs, as can The Grateful Dead, cannot overcome the bias has, unfortunately, been installed. Those groups ‘jam onstage’ therefore they lose some perceived value to a broad segment of potential audience.
And so, this past weekend, as I enjoyed a relaxing moment of coffee and a record, I realized that it should be noted that most bands jam and many do it onstage. Why should a select few carry a stigma when a broad cross-section of musical groups take to the stage or even the studio and stretch their songs to the limits?
Herein, I shall begin compiling examples of these performances in a list that I’ll call: Those Other Jams.
I stood at the Sad
Night’s edge where I blinked
Though fear made me blink
The Infinite surrounds us
Fish can’t fear water
Sadness like a cloak
Dampened by rain keeps us cold
I feared to regret
Unpaved uphill roads
With falling rocks and washouts
lead to gorgeous peaks
Smooth highways beckon
Invent thyself and ramble!
Stare. It won’t stare back
Step forth and wrestle the void
Best hope is a draw
Keep the void roughly arm’s length
Still I probe the edge
Poised on the safe side
Bound by the word I’ve given
Still pushing uphill
With the worst of my regrets
vanquished by a blink
On Halloween, Phish eschewed the traditional “Costume Set” wherein the band covers a classic album and, instead, took the bold move of debuting 12 new songs that, they announced, would likely comprise the bulk of their yet-to-be-recorded new album. While writing and rehearsals for the album had taken place over the last year, none of these tunes had been played for a Phish audience. The band hoped that the live experience would add to their understanding of each of these songs as they go into the studio to record with legendary producer, Bob Ezrin, in the first week of November.
“Wingsuit” starts with thin vocals and a refrain that feels tentative, but warms a bit with a strong guitar solo. The lyrics are not ambiguous and sound very much of the 3.0 era, honest and direct about life and how to live it. I suspect that this will grow significantly in the studio into a great piece of audio work. It was followed by “Feugo” which kicks off with a strong instrumental sequence followed by a chanted verse and big, sing-songy, wordless chorus. This song turned around a lot of people who were unsure after the set began with “Wingsuit”. The various segments of “Feugo” illustrate a lot of what Phish does in this era: quick changes, high tempo riffing, and a healthy dose of darkness.
“The Line” pushes the darkness aside and explores fear and facing challenges from a positive perspective. This could be Phish’s pop masterpiece, honestly. The backing vocals are gorgeous, the melody is strong and simple and the message clear as a bell. This is exactly the sort of song Phish fans love to hate but it’s really a great pop song and I can’t help but like it.
“Monica” is an unstoppably catchy earworm with call-and-response vocals that will bounce around in your head for an hour after you hear it. Fortunately, it completely lacks in awfulness. They performed it in a stripped down setup with Trey on acoustic, Mike on an upright bass, Fishman on a stripped down kit, and Page on a simplified keyboard setup. “Waiting All Night” has a bit more of the call-and-response but this time in the electrified, full setup with Trey’s solos gliding beautifully across the mix. It’s a simple song but pretty and a definite keeper with lots of potential.
I walked away from Phish after a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2010. I wasn’t disgusted or offended by their playing or whatever faults I might have perceived in the band, I just wasn’t having as much fun. So I stopped attending shows and listened to fewer and fewer of their current recordings. Then, over this past Summer, something changed. The band was exuding the playfulness that I wanted once again. Maybe it was me; maybe not. But it’s not just about jamming or silly gags onstage, it’s about energy. While the band has clearly been enjoying themselves all along, they had stopped transmitting on my frequency. This past Summer, that changed.
Then they announced a run of shows at the Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia and I knew it was time.
Coming about a week after the 19th anniversary of my very first Phish show, these would be my first shows in more than two years when the band returned to . The venue has been a part of my musical life since the early 90s and part of my life’s scenery as far back as I can remember due to growing up in region. It was good to be back to both the band and the room.
(Click here if you want to skip to the summary. I’ll eventually forgive you.)
Night One (Friday, October 18, 2013):
A lovely day for a drive through Virginia and soon enough we’re checked into the hotel and on the lot in Hampton. We met a few friends and went in early enough to grab a great spot, on the rail, just behind Page. From here could see everything that he did, most of what Fish did and every bit of Trey’s turning and geeking out on Page’s solos. The latter happened frequently throughout the evening.
“Wolfman’s Brother” opened strong and got right down to rockin’ and “Runaway Jim” hinted at the band’s eagerness to jam when they stretched it slightly before the first big peak. “Mound” was a particular treat because I’ve somehow managed to not see it since the Summer of ’95. “Chalk Dust Torture” followed, bringing back the rock, and Page gave us a breather with his rather personal sounding ballad, “Army Of One”. The band picked things right back up a bluegrass number, “Nelly Kane”, and then dove into “Stash”. Continue reading
It’s Jerry’s birthday. He would have turned 71 today.
I made this mix a while back and have just posted it to youtube for your streaming pleasure. It’s a seamless 76minute “Playing In The Band”.
Still miss him.