I’m not really a jam band guy. I love the concept of groups picking up where Jerry and crew left off, but not often the execution. The main issue, for me, is the lack of really memorable tunes. The usual formula is strong instrumental prowess, weak songwriting skills. Audiences are fairly undiscriminating, so it’s not like they’re paying much penalty for that deficit.
It was interesting to see Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s bassist, dissing jam bands in a recent Rolling Stone interview. He said, basically, that the rhythm sections repeat the same patterns as the soloist goes off into virtuosic flights, which is contrary to the Dead’s spirit of everyone working together—collective improvisation, he called it.
That brings me to the most recent Gathering of the Vibes, held local to me in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I’ve been a speaker on the Green Stage for several years, and last weekend not only talked about the wonders of electric cars but introduced my favorite “jam” band, Ithaca, New York’s Donna the Buffalo. I put “jam” in quotes because co-founder (with Jeb Puryear) Tara Nevins objected to the term when I talked to her backstage, and rightly so.
Donna, she says, is rooted in old-timey music, which lacks the soloist concept—that was the bluegrass innovation. (Bill Monroe obviously listened to jazz, the popular music of his day.) Donna isn’t about Puryear shredding on the guitar (or, in Tara’s case, the fiddle and accordion). It’s about furthering the groove!
But despite their slightly off-kilter conception, Donna is a hit with jam band audiences like those at the Vibes. They’ve got deeply felt and rootsy songs, which the purchase of any of the records in their large catalog will prove. And if you didn’t know, the group hosts a series of Grassroots Festivals, in upstate New York and North Carolina (the latter coming up in October). Watch this video I shot at the Vibes–with one of their longer group improvisations–and you’ll see what I’m talking about.