Jerry's kids

Jam bands burst into bloom

Schools thinks the root of the problem lies in statistics rather than the music or the kind of folks it attracts. "More numbers equal more potential for trouble," he says. "When you start selling out big arenas, more bad things are bound to happen, like the Who in Cincinnati [the 1979 general admission concert at Riverside Coliseum where 11 people were trampled to death or crushed]. What we're trying to do is groom everything as it goes--and grows--along, and kind of keep it pointed in a natural direction."

So far it seems to be working. "Even if it gets a little crazy at times," Schools says, "it still feels good, like, 'look what we've inspired.'"

Although WP made their name through relentless touring, 1998 will mark a change of pace. "We're gonna take some time off," Schools announces. "We have a new rehearsal space that's much larger and much more conducive to getting back down to what it was to write songs with Widespread Panic ten years ago, that living-room feel." The hirsute bassist is also looking forward to a return to more of a family vibe. "We're really psyched about the opportunity to get together. When you're doing 250 shows a year, and you finally get home, it's like, hmm, I could spend time with my family, or I could choose to be with these guys that I just spent 250 days with. Now, it's down to 120 dates a year, with a live record coming out in April [1998] and a European tour coming up; it's all looking real good. When we go to Europe, hopefully we'll be inspired to write a bunch of new material."

The road wasn't good for Widespread's songwriting process. All songwriting credits go to the band, and each member contributes whatever he wants to, or can. "Sometimes someone might bring in an almost-whole idea, arranged and everything," Schools explains. "Other times, I might just bring in three riffs I've come up with and ask which one is best and which one should be saved for a bridge. Then we hammer it out. It's just hard to do that at sound check, which is where we found ourselves doing it the last couple of years."

Schools finds no mystery behind the phenomenal growth of jam bands and the taper culture that follows them. "I think people just enjoy music being created," he says. "If you were at a show, it might be a special moment for you that you want to relive. I understand that, because it's like that for me, too: I collect Dead tapes, old Weather Report tapes with Jaco Pastorius playing, whatever I can get my hands on that I like, which leans toward instrumental improvisation and jazz. That stuff is different every night, which is what makes it collectible and why taping's such a big thing, because people are trying to catch these moments of improvisation, like little gems."

Widespread Panic returns to the Bronco Bowl Friday, November 21.

Phish: The pride of Vermont, where in 1983 they were formed at the University of, Phish is arguably the oldest of the second jamming generation and the first to achieve Dead-level momentum. They were also the first to experience Dead-level problems; almost immediately after Jerry Garcia's demise in 1995, most, if not all, of the Dead's "problem children"--the scruffy, ticketless, dope-dealing, one-finger-in-the-air-holding, car-burglarizing, whining mass of dead weight and bad publicity--leapt onto Phish like a mouse on cheese.

It didn't really follow; besides a taste for free-form, exploratory playing and traditional American underpinning (usually hidden but most evident when the band would set aside their instruments for an a cappella version of some ancient chestnut like "Goodnight Irene," "Uncle Pen," or "Amazing Grace"), Phish's virtuoso approach was closer to that of prog-rockers than the Dead's electric jug band. Produced by four musicians--all inclined to see their instrument as a solo tool--Phish's detailed sonic filigree and fugue-like complexity often betray the training and compositional skills of its members. Not only that, but the Phish cosmology (based on a song cycle called Gamehenge that formed the basis for an internal logic which--like the game of cribbage--is totally impenetrable to the casual observer) wasn't (and still isn't) exactly virgin-friendly.

However, Phish makes unprecedented efforts to connect with their audiences, and usually succeeds, but the avenues they pursue--chess games played with the audiences on a giant chessboard, mass instructions for audience behavior--are fairly cerebral and not exactly geared to the attention span of someone who answers the question "venture capitalism?" with the phrase "toast on a stick, only a buck. Please? Dude?" Nevertheless, Phish remains burdened.

In March of 1993, Phish's show at Deep Ellum Live hardly filled the place; three years later--after Garcia's death--they had leapfrogged up several orders of magnitude, selling out the considerably larger Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth. There were at least a thousand ticketless "miracle" deadbeats stumbling around the venue with dopey fingers upraised.

Earlier that same year--1996--Phish played New Orleans' Jazzfest, and the Crescent City was anything but the Big Easy for the band. Although they count many erudite, well-behaved (if a bit obsessive) people among their audience, it is the crustier Phish fans that the normally laid-back residents of New Orleans recall. "Ugliest people I ever saw," a man scooping out a cooling mango freeze opined at this year's Festival. "Dirty, too."

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