It’s a jam-band world. They creep into the local venues, show up at festivals, and have managed to trick music lovers with little knowledge of bluegrass and funk that all bands that play bluegrass or funk are jam bands.
Colorado seems to be the center of the jam world, where musicians with top-notch chops dabble in the noodling. The state has birthed Leftover Salmon, The Motet, String Cheese Incident and many more, while Durango has Liver Down the River and Elder Grown, part of a younger guard that are both growing in popularity. Durango will host two Front Range jam bands here this weekend, with Grant Farm playing the Balcony Backstage Thursday, Jan. 26, and Ignatius Reilly playing the same venue on Saturday, Jan. 28. The former, led by Tyler Grant, a bluegrass-reared, award-winning flatpicking guitarist whose bluegrass projects get less attention than his rock outfit that dabbles in country-influenced rock while highlighting Grant’s stellar guitar playing. The ladder is a Denver outfit adept at stripped-down acoustic or boogie-based rock ’n’ roll, a rowdy mix of Southern rock and alternative country with Allman Brothers-like jam influences.
The reasoning behind the love of jam bands continues to baffle genre traditionalists, sighting lack of substance and soul. But for the fans, a good time is brought by the two sets and hours of music. It’s a communal scene full of colorful characters and, at times, ripe with attitude adjustments and enhancements to make it so much more fun.
It’s a genre that remains difficult to define. Maybe it’s the crossing of genres. As in some cases when a band says, “We do bluegrass, funk, electronic and rock,” it’s safe to call them a jam band. Maybe it’s the 18-minute songs where 12 of those minutes are improvised. Or perhaps it’s the one song that flows into another song then back into the original.
If song length is a qualification, then that makes indie-rock stalwarts Built to Spill a jam band, solely for their often-18-minute cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”
If the use of “[title of lame song > another lame song]” is a qualification, chalk The Gourds up as jam band for their cover of “Gin and Juice” being used as a platform to launch into other covers that could be anything from Fleetwood Mac to R. Kelly.
These traits would also make Sonic Youth and Ween among others jam bands, as well.
I consulted a few KDUR DJs that dig on the genre. For Critter Golden, his love began when he was in the womb and his parents attended Grateful Dead shows, and it’s carried over to a love of the live unpredictability of set-lists found in either the rock or bluegrass bands that fall into the jam realm.
For Keith Dunning, the love may start and stop at Phish, as he refers to the band as THE jam band, sighting improvisation, creative humor and complicated structure as a reason to like them.
“There are constant gags, inside jokes, strange lyrics, on-stage antics and a secret language,” said Dunning. “And the complexity of a lot of their composed songs is very attractive. In my mind, some tunes border on rock’s takes of classical compositions.”
There are reasons to like and reasons to dislike the genre, like any genre. That likely comes with the fans: Want to get turned off to a genre of music? Spend an afternoon with its diehards.
Five minutes with me and you’ll end up hating Drone-Womp.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]