Jerry's kids

Jam bands burst into bloom

"They just saw their band, then they left," the woman at his elbow added in a tone of voice that indicated that this lack of appreciation was far more offensive than all the public excretion, illegal parking, garbage dumping, and general moochery that plagued the area combined. In a voice that no doubt haunted the Dead the last decade of their existence, she added, "I hope they never come back."

Sadly, Phish possess real skill and feeling, and a sense of humor as well. They bounce on trampolines and break up their precisely written and delivered originals with covers like ZZ Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago" and the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun." Ben and Jerry have named an ice-cream flavor after the band, just as they did for another artist that Phish would just as soon have go unmentioned. Their last stop through town--July 25 at Starplex--was absolutely incendiary, full of accomplished fury and stunningly good. At the end of this year, they will fill Madison Square Garden three nights in a row, yet most people's enduring image of them (in New Orleans, at least) will still be an unwashed runaway on Ecstacy in their front yard, trying vainly to tie a bandanna around the neck of a panicked, flea-bitten dog.

The Black Crowes: Few bands function as a vehicle for past styles like the Atlanta-based Crowes. Fewer still manage to escape detection, but the Crowes--founded in 1984 by guiding lights Chris and Rich Robinson--have managed to inject enough personal energy (principally through Kinks-like brother-on-brother feuds) into their presentation to avoid coming off as just the sum of their influences. Keepers of the Ron Wood-Keith Richards bar-band chug-along during a time when that style had little appeal, the Crowes broke big in 1991 with "Hard to Handle," the Otis Redding chestnut that incidentally was a Dead staple during their Pigpen [Ron McKernan]-fronted, acid-fried R&B band days. Vocal marijuana fans, the Crowes are also notable for their sense of rock style: an amalgam of skinny shirtless guys in velvet jackets, tight pants, and silly hats that would do Ritchie Blackmore or Ron Wood proud. Although they got off to a good start, the band seems lately to have fallen upon shaky, contentious times. Original bassist Johnny Colt has recently split from the group, and guitarist Marc Ford--on board since 1992--left/was kicked out this August.

Blues Traveler: Of course the magic of pulling off improvisation--what really makes those successful moments sing--is that 90 percent of the time it's aimless bullshit. The mirror in which every other jam band looks good and the Q.E.D. proof of exposition's tendency toward mediocrity is Blues Traveler, the luckiest band in the world. Frontman John Popper cuts an odd, disturbing figure. His habit of wearing a World War II-vintage infantryman's cartridge belt around his neck in order to house his harmonicas was at first an interesting trademark. Now that he's graduated to black leather replicas of that system--and festooned them with samurai swords, flashlights, and what looks like all manner of camping gear--his harp harness merely seems a creepy manifestation of rock star fetishism and indulgence. This impression does not go well with the band's very public infatuation with firearms, particularly pistols (handguns are like drugs and/or hot coffee enemas: if people know you like them, they probably know too much). Popper's "harness" is not only creepy, but hard on the ears: along with its other accoutrements it still keeps a wide array of mouth organs handy, and Popper's aggressive, tootling ineptitude on the harmonica is one of the few things more annoying than his contrived, Cat Stevens-like vocal delivery.

Live, the band cops bland boogie-riffs, a study in the kind of turgid churn you'd expect from a washing machine. Chan Kinchla is a member--if not the president-for-life--of the hair-whipping, pose-copping, face-making school of guitar; if he didn't play so long, his histrionics might distract the listener from the fact that he's an utterly average player. Still, in this era of limited resources, you have to admire the mileage Kinchla seems determined to wring from the three or four ideas that he has. Like many improvisational acts, BT's fans all agree that the band's albums don't do their concerts justice, which in this instance is a truly terrifying concept. Although the band's latest release--this year's Straight On Till Morning--shows improvement, the same might be said for an abscess; you still wouldn't want it in your ear.

The Allman Brothers: True, their appeal lies mostly in the recollection of past glories--they started around the same time as the Dead--but their creative peak was powerful enough that they still resonate today. The band seems now to have a kind of tissue memory for the process by which they pull long lengths of chain like "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and "Whipping Post" through an audience, often with surprising power and poise.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Although he started out as a folkie in the late '60s, Young has grown into the image of an extended, extemporaneous player, substituting grinding, jerky, almost epileptic solos played extremely loud for the pastoral flow and spacy beauty that many improvisational acts go for. Now, he's no stranger to the 14-minute song or the six-minute lead break--the very rock that the House of Jam is built upon.

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