By: Niki Fritz
I was raised on steady diet of Beach Boys and gospel-style Elvis Presley, the music diet equivalent of unseasoned pork chops and potatoes. I did not even know the Beatles were a thing until high school. I most certainly was never exposed to any “jam bands” or any music that jammed at all.
I was curious when I heard not one, but two, of our faculty members self-identified as jam band fans. Bryant Paul is a notorious Deadhead, while Julien Mailland considers himself an active Phish Head. While I understand the basics of a jam band (which I assumed is VW buses, tie-dye and lots of “jamming”), I wanted to find out more about the lure of this free-style music. In particular I wanted to know why two seemingly serious academics would be into the chaos of bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish.
Bryant’s love affair with the Dead started way back in the 80s when Bryant was in high school. The band had a resurgence after playing for years in the 60s and 70s when their song “Touch of Grey” ranked in the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, the only Dead song to ever do so. Bryant was a guitarist and the Dead-style of jamming inspired him.
In 1989 Bryant finally had the chance to go to his first show at the Spectrum in Philly. He pulled into the parking lot with his friends on a Thursday night in October. It was drizzling, so they threw a huge tarp over all their cars, making a temporary camping site. Other Deadheads were doing similar things, e.g. selling goods from the trunks of their cars. Bryant and his friends walked around, talking to people from all over the country. During the show, Bryant remembers people free-flow dancing and an open, welcoming, hippy-esque environment.
Bryant explains that the Grateful Dead is really about live performances, not studio recordings. “[Live shows] gave you the opportunity to sit there while someone is creating art in front of you,” Bryant explains. “Having all these people work together to create something as a whole is amazing. They bring clarity out of chaos.”
Bryant went to over 15 Dead shows but eventually, the crowd began to change and the front man, Jerry Garcia, started to fade. When Jerry died, Bryant remembers thinking something big was ending.
“You want to think the Dead were more than Jerry – and they were – but they were 85% Jerry,” Bryant says. “It wasn’t that he was the only one you wanted to hear; he was just this bigger than life personality. When he died, so much died with him.”
Today though, Bryant says he is probably a bigger Deadhead than he was back in the day, thanks to the Grateful Dead XM radio channel. It is what he listens to 95% of the time, finding new inspiration with each live concert.
“[The Dead] has a special place in my past,” Bryant says wistfully. “I think the thing I got the most out of the band was this idea that you can create something really cool and work really hard at it, but it doesn’t have to be so serious. Look at what I do for a living. If I die tomorrow, the world will keep turning. That is what the Dead taught me.”
I was beginning to understand that this jam band stuff may be about more than just the music and neon-colored dancing bears.
Julien says he considers himself a Grateful Dead fan, but can’t be considered a Deadhead since he never had the chance to see the band perform live. Luckily, he found another jam band, Phish, while he was in college in the States.
Julien’s Wall of Cognitive Dissonance, which includes a Dead poster and a signed Bush photo
“I’ve been to 15 Phish shows including an 8-set, 3-day show/campout with another 40,000 Phish Heads in the California desert,” Julien tells me when I am in his jam band-sprinkled office. “I don’t put much philosophical meaning behind Phish. [Live shows] are just a really fun experience.”
For Julien, Phish shows hold a similar appeal to what Dead shows used to be; there is a cool parking lot vibe as well as some solid jamming during shows. He calls Phish shows a “multidimensional sensory experience,” particularly when the jamming is combined with a light show as well as audience participation in the form of glow sticks. I was not particularly sold on what audience participation was until Julien showed me a YouTube clip of the glow stick action. I was starting to understand the whole appeal of this jam band thing.
Julien explains though that the shows are also about a Phish Head culture.
“[Phish shows] draw from the tradition of counter culture and having a society that is not necessarily based on full-on Adam Smith principles. It goes back to the tradition of carnival, which goes back to the Middle Ages,” Julien explains. “In that tradition people dress up and there is a flattening of the social structure which I think also occurs at Phish shows.”
And this is where I begin to see the draw of jam bands, while they are about awesome “riffing” and musical talent, they are mostly about culture.
As Bryant explains: “With the Dead it is about a culture as much as it is about the music. The culture is super appealing. It represents the 60s and the hippy movement at some level, being part of something bigger … We fetishized the 60s as a time of great love and hope; I’m sure it’s not as great as that. But the Dead was something I could reach out and touch that was part of that era.”
For both Bryant and Julien, being a jam band head isn’t just about music or tie-dye t-shirts; it is about stepping into a culture that is vastly different than the one they occupy daily; a rose-colored, socially-equalitarian, spiritually-harmonious space that may only exist for a night in a parking lot of some arena. But for that night, jam band heads get to step out of their hierarchical rigid world of corporate America or the ivory tower and into a world of harmony, love and glow sticks.
I may not be ready to follow Phish or any of the newer jamtronica bands around, but I think I understand the jam band culture a bit more. And I know I will be a little less judgmental of all that tie-dye in the future.