By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The repetitive patterns in rock and the blues are really not that far removed from the drumming that many "primitive" societies employ for social and religious purposes. The steadily increasing popularity of "jam bands"--improvisational groups that build their musical explorations on a foundation of those rhythms--is an undeniable pop culture trend, the next microcosm to be blown all out of proportion by the greater, stimulus-hungry culture. It's a culture that seeks a return to the life that the rhythms hint at, and it's no accident that the cradle of this musical (at least) direction was the boho/beatnik Valhalla of San Francisco over 30 years ago, the birthplace of the genre's most enduring example, the Grateful Dead. The Dead took the almost-shamanistic properties of the groove and built an entire empire upon it, far outdistancing contemporaries like Quicksilver Messenger Service. Now, since the death of Jerry Garcia eliminated the Dead as a concert draw, a large audience with considerable disposable income (and a yawning void in their lives) is up for grabs. The loss of the Dead as a defining force has left the genre--like a plot of ground from which a tall shade tree has been removed--full of life and fresh growth. Catalyzed by the H.O.R.D.E. tours, the bands that sprang up in the Dead's wake share certain traits. Many aspects of the Dead scene--fanatical and interconnected followings, audience taping of shows and the detailed archiving it inspires--have since become standard for the genre, and it's hard now to tell the players without a scorecard. With this in mind, we'd like to offer the following guide to the most relevant examples of the type, starting with some of the most popular:
Widespread Panic: Formed in Athens, Georgia, this sextet is just now pulling up behind front-runners Phish. With roots close to classic Southern bands, this two-guitar, two-drummer aggregation is a bit more accessible than the dense, convoluted Phish. Still, their momentum has built more slowly: While Phish's Texas dates this summer saw them playing Starplex, Panic played the Bronco Bowl.
Both bands have attracted Dead-level devotion: cadres of tapers and fans who base some part of their lives on hearing the music, merrily traipsing from show to show. Mindful of the negative effects of the Dead's audience--or rather, the scam artists and pleasure cruisers that followed the band but seldom saw a show--both groups regard their surging popularity with caution.
"On the one hand, it's good," says Panic bassist Dave Schools. "We have more and more fans following the band. On the other hand, we've gotten more and more people who just show up [at concerts] to make money by selling drugs--or T-shirts, or whatever--in the parking lot. Eventually things get out of hand, just like with the Dead or Phish, and it gets to the point where a band can't hardly tour. But touring is what we're all about, so we're gonna try and not put ourselves in that position."
Schools notes that in this age of co-dependency, AIDS, full awareness of the deleterious effects of drugs and alcohol, sexual harassment, and decreased economic options, many of the old kicks have been phased out. "What else gives you a sense of adventure these days?" he asks. "Rock climbing? Maybe, but most all of those rocks have already been climbed. The last real adventure is to get on out there, on the road with some of your friends and see what happens. Following a band's schedule can be crazy."
Widespread Panic may often sound close to its Southeastern antecedents--groups like the Allman Brothers and Sea Level--but they don't consider themselves a "Southern rock band." "They're our forefathers, obviously," Schools admits. "But the only thing that makes us a 'Southern rock' band is the fact that we're from the South, and we rock. There are certain cliches associated with Southern rock that we're not a part of, even though we are guitar-oriented." He pauses for a second. "I don't know what we are; we've just been doing what we've been doing for 10 years."
"When we were playing the clubs, we met bands like Phish and Blues Traveler," Schools explains. "Then the H.O.R.D.E. thing developed, and that was a success." Unfortunately, the once-cool H.O.R.D.E. has followed other big multi-act tours like Lollapalooza in veering from a semi-adventurous path and onto the hard, reliable tarmac required to make money. Panic fans (called "Spreadheads") were overjoyed when Widespread was announced as a keystone band for this year's H.O.R.D.E. tour, then dismayed when the band pulled out in a dispute over what has usually been attributed to their place in the lineup. The result was that a Panic-less H.O.R.D.E., one of its big punches pulled, didn't even visit Texas this year. Widespread has since severed their connections with the event.
"We had to pull away from the whole H.O.R.D.E. thing due to the nature of its success," Schools explains. "It had become a commercial entity." When asked if he thought that the tour had become about something more than music, he emits a disgusted snort. "Totally about more than music," he replies.