Available now from Da Capo Press, Jamerica is a “Behind the Music” styled treatise devoted to American “jam” music and its prolific purveyors. Author Peter Conners hits on all pertinent bands and festivals of the virtuosic neo-hippie movement, kicking up intriguing points like a patchouli-scented undergrad shoeing a Hacky Sack outside the student union. We’re treated to in-depth coverage of expository ensembles like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic, their hardcore followings, and the impact of each on the style—and surrounding culture—as a whole.
The compelling 280-pages examine the meaning of “jam,” poke through its forty-year history, profile its most colorful players, and—perhaps most importantly—get to the heart of why these groups do what they do, eschewing chances at greater fame and fortune by concocting spur-of-the-moment concert statements without much regard for commercial airplay.
Conners meticulously compiles quotes and anecdotes from talented musicians who don’t follow set lists and never perform songs the same way twice, instead extending their pieces for the stage with spontaneous soloing, instrumental interplay, and extended grooves. It’s one of few niches where the music triumphs over human beings making it, whose sum trumps its constituent parts, and whose impact is both immediate and unique to the time, place, and people involved. Musicians sublimate image and ego to communicate with one another on a telepathic level so comically keen and of-the-moment that the shows become transcendent for everyone in earshot.
Jamerica is a great standalone “gateway” text on the still-thriving scene(s)—but it’s also a nice follow-up / companion to Conners’ earlier Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. The Rochester author / poet has also written extensively on Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, whose mind-expanding acid regimen and Beat aesthetics inspired the Flower Power idealists who shaped the nascent jam movement.
Conners gets his two cents in—particularly in the Preface, wherein he provides a thorough (if subjective) overview of that “singular, shared musical experience” at the heart of the scene. He’s quick to correct sweeping generalizations cast by the loose “jam band” label, apologizes to musicians who feel “lumped in,” and offers tentative criteria to separate wheat from chaff. It’s hard to argue with the three characteristics he offers as being common to so-called jam bands, although each could serve as the springboard to some terrific dorm room rumination and bong-fueled debate: 1) Dedication to a singular musical event shared by band and audience driven by improvisation and “certain levels” of musicianship / technical facility; 2) Emphasis on live performance over studio albums; and 3) A conscious effort to connect with a grassroots following of fans.
The armchair sociologist acknowledges the scene’s tie-dyed roots, tracing the M.O. of today’s most nimble-fingered acts back to Haight-Ashbury ‘60s groups like the Grateful Dead and other counterculture acts and events circa the Vietnam War. But he credits the inaugural HORDE Festival for nudging underground jam acts into the mainstream in the ‘90s, and cites the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia for the groundswell of renewed interest in the genre. Accordingly, his retrospect starts with “second generation” acts like Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Janes Addiction, and their contemporaries before backpedalling to the Dead and the Allmans or plunging into relative newcomers like moe. and Leftover Salmon.
But Jamerica is primarily an oral history whose chapters (“Building Fans and Avoiding the Man,” “Feelin’ Festy,” “Sharing the Groove”) draw on hundreds of interviews from magazines, TV, and websites with some of the most seasoned musicians, managers, organizers, and technicians of our time. And therein lay the book’s greatest strength—and its Achilles’ heel. For while most readers are familiar with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Mickey Hart for their pioneering efforts in the field, casual fans won’t recognize most of the names.
Sure, they’ll know Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell, and Warren Haynes from his stint with The Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule. They’ve probably been exposed to Tim Reynolds through the guitarist’s many collaborations with Dave Matthews, and Bela Fleck and Taj Mahal may seem familiar because of their work outside the realm of jam. But this book will likely be the everyman’s introduction to lesser-known (if equally skilled) practitioners like Jon Gutwillig (Disco Biscuits), Jeb Puryear (Donna the Buffalo), Jeff Howard (The McLovins), Jono Manson (The Worms), and Jeffrey Lloyd (Heavy Pets).
Regardless, when strung together like Christmas lights, these insightful, entertaining tidbits and musical memories instill a sense that reader is amongst friends—like at Bonnaroo, Further Fest, Hookahville or some massive-yet-communal Wetlands show. There’s no such thing as dirty laundry. Politics and prejudices are left at the gate. It all seems more like an informal, round-robin palaver in some hazy backstage dressing room than a quilt-work of piecemeal, haphazardly-stitched poesy.
Conners fingers the person responsible for coining “jam band” but accounts for the journalist’s feelings on the term’s limiting nature. We go behind the scenes with the insiders, learn how several bands formed, gigged, and cultivated followings. Aficionados will savor the in-depth discussions on songwriting and performance, and how players give themselves over to rhythm and melody vis-à-vis musical ESP. You’ll learn how Blues Traveler harp guru John Pepper started HORDE, how comedian Rodney Dangerfield inspired a particular band’s moniker, and the extent to which Phish’s Trey Anastasio goes to keep things fresh. Even outsiders will emerge with a new appreciation for the DIY ethic with which bands (and fans) market themselves (using handbills, flyers, and Facebook).
The book reserves a chapter for the “tapers,” visiting the trenches from which stealthy concertgoers preserve shows on cassette, DAT, and hard drives for free dissemination online and through the post. Conners places significant emphasis on the tape-trading community and credits zealous tapers for the longevity of acts like the Dead, whose thousands of shows have been captured for perpetuity. An epilogue enjoins “A Few Words from the Fans,” who opine on the bands, the shows, and the unifying quality of the music.
The list of heavy-quoted players, managers, technicians, writers, and photographers also includes: Stephen Perkins (Janes Addiction); Marco Benevento (pianist, Royal Potato Family); Tim Bluhm (guitarist, Mother Hips); Andy Goessling (multi-instrumentalist, Railroad Earth); Jo Jo Herman (keyboards, Widespread Panic); Parke Puterbaugh (journalist, Phish biographer); Stephen Robinson (percussionist, Jabez Stone); Rob Derhak (bass, moe.); Jeff Mattson (guitarist, Dark Star Orchestra); Chris Kuroda (lighting director, Phish); Michael Travis (drummer, String Cheese Incident); Joel Cummins (keyboards, Umphrey’s McGee); Col. Bruce Hampton (guitarist, Aquarium Rescue Unit); David Gans (journalist and radio show host); and many more.
An eight-page photo insert contains black-and-whites of the more significant bands doing their thing.