Tapping into the vibe

It's easy to either love a band's lengthy instrumental jam or be quickly annoyed and ready for the next song. For loyal followers of jambands across the country, I imagine they incline towards the former. But what really constitutes a jamband? Does the label only refer to musicians that spontaneously play for hours? "A collective penchant for improvisation, a commitment to songcraft and a propensity to cross genre boundaries, drawing from a range of traditions including blues, bluegrass, funk, rock, psychedelia and even techno," is the more inclusive definition of a jamband, according to the Web site devoted solely to the phenomenon at jambands.com.

Perhaps the other most common characteristic a band is measured against for its "jammy" quotient is the extent groupies remain present throughout the length of a tour. The most famous being the faithful Deadheads of The Grateful Dead, the exemplary band who unquestionably started the trend decades ago. Despite 35 years of experience they could dangle over newer jambands, in true peaceful Dead-fashion, they instead shy away from any paternal association with the genre. Mainly because they're "still out there trying to tap into the vibe (themselves)," according to their acceptance letter for Release of the Year at the 2000 first annual Jammy Awards in New York City.

That universal "vibe" is relevant for all musicians whether categorically a jamband or not, including the String Cheese Incident (at the Big Easy April 1 to a sold-out crowd) and Boise's Crash Four, who have developed a respectable following as well (at Tom Grainey's April 2).

When I spoke with String Cheese Incident's (SCI) Michael Kang, the exploratory and improvisational qualities inherent in jambands was evident in his description of their music. Kang was quirkily charming, even over the phone and after his reference to the lyrics of a Dead song, "I hear those Mormon girls are really great," as explanation of his thoughts when I mention Boise. No offense intended or taken, and Kang quickly mentions his delight rafting down the Payette once as well.

He emphasizes yet another aspect of a jamband that is especially important to SCI, "It's how we relate to our fans ... It's not like any of us are going to be on MTV anytime soon. Without our fans, we wouldn't be able to do what we do. It's a homemade network." The independent nature of jambands is an admirable point, as bands like Phish, Leftover Salmon and SCI all continue to thrive from word-of-mouth promotion over traditional marketing and radio airtime.

By comparison, Crash Four no longer jives with the jamband label. "At first we thought it was cool. We are a lot more structured now ... a bluegrass rap rockin' country-bunkin' tree-hugging band, that's the category to see us under at a music store," bassist Jake Ransom explains. Ransom's lengthy new title to replace the band's former standby of "eclectic" makes me smile, as such a wide range of style is actually a central component to jambands. Guitarist Kelly Martin clarifies the discrepancy "We do play differently each time and everyone gets pigeon-holed. I say we started out (as a jamband) but we don't improvise now," he says. And improvisation is key as classic jambands from Dave Matthews to the Disco Biscuits prove.

"We're closet jambanders, I guess, at rehearsal or in practice," Martin offers. But onstage Crash Four is purposeful, and while they may link an ending song into another, even a 10-minute jam would be a rare occurrence. "It's an exploration of chemistry. You start out playing like that, following each other to get the internal chemistry," says Ransom. Their abandoned search for chemistry is a tribute to Crash Four's coming of age, as after six years together they hit their stride without room for error.

Ransom and Martin remain respectful of jambands, however, as they similarly seek to constantly reinvent their shows. "We change it up and employ the whole spectrum of music, playing with the orchestra on the last CD was pretty amazing," Ransom says.

As the stylistic margin of a jamband is vast, it's hardly a stretch for band members to be influenced by a variety of sources. "My musical influence right now are my best friends," Kang says. "Burning Man has also hugely influenced my life and so has traveling internationally. I saw Snoop Dogg recently and totally dug his style, but we're not exactly straight out of Compton. My career as a rapper is not succeeding," he adds in jest. "Santana, the Dead, Phish-all those bands being on the road all the time creates this shared ethic of traveling entertainers." This ethic includes concerts evolving into a place where husbands meet wives and friends meet friends, according to Kang.

When I mention SCI's fame he says, "I'm famous?" So instead I ask if they often get fans lamenting that the music changed their life etc. "That happens a lot, but we try to retain reality. We're really normal people. I still use the toilet," Kang responds, and it's somehow still charming.

Crash Four is not immune to loyal audiences either. Martin describes one fan in particular who has enjoyed their music since the band formed in 1998 and continues to fly in for shows though he now lives in Ohio. The band appreciates the attention, especially as they believe the local music scene is under-supported by Boiseans when compared to other cities like Seattle or Denver. "Boise deserves culture and it's slowly fading away. Local has a negative connotation but it should be a very positive thing," Ransom says. It's obvious they take this to heart when he adds, "I've said we're from New York onstage before and people respond better. Your location plays with people's opinions-I'm from L.A. vs. Caldwell ... " Though Crash Four may be disillusioned about their local status, they're well aware of the length of time and widespread publicity required for continual success.

Kang's advice to budding artists is to believe in yourself and try to spread as much positive energy as possible, though he admits SCI used to sacrifice "little bunny rabbits" as a pre-performance ritual. Ha. More likely at the upcoming Motley Crue concert than any jamband interactive experience with SCI. "I get to do what I love to do and I've been doing it for so long. To be able to raise the energy in a room of a couple thousand people and transcend normal reality, teleport ourselves to different galaxies and see if we can blow the roof off (is our goal)," he says.

Kang leaves me with a request to keep him from sounding like an asshole. On the contrary, I think it's more evident I have a crush. So there you have it-just another groupie sucked into the jamband scene with a better idea of what exactly that entails.

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