Wednesday, October 06, 1999

Stewsday Productions in the News

Jam Bands
They're Not Mainstream, They Just Like To Let Loose

Capital Times :: Lifestyle :: 1D
Wednesday, October 6, 1999
By Rob Thomas The Capital Times

You never see them on MTV. You almost never hear them on the radio. If their CDs are in your local record store, chances are they're not in the display bins up front.
Yet bands like the String Cheese Incident, Galactic and the Big Wu attract hundreds every time they play in Madison. Many of those fans are college students, but others are in their 40s and 50s.

They're called ``jam bands,'' and they're united not as much by a similar sound as by a philosophy. It's a philosophy that turns the accepted standard of success in the music industry on its ear.

``We might not have the shows that are going to have the little catch phrases,'' says Greg Stewart, founder of Stewsday Productions in Madison, which works with many such bands. ``We don't have that commercial edge to it. They're not selling out. It's almost impossible for them to do that because these are musicians' musicians, every last one of them.''
When many rock bands play live, they play tight, controlled concerts where it seems every note is planned out weeks in advance.

Jam bands, on the other hand, embrace improvisation and spontaneity on stage. The musicians are likely to take extended solos or back-and-forth jams that move the song in an entirely different direction.

If it doesn't work, it can seem like self-indulgent noodling.

But when it does work -- and these are often very talented musicians -- they create an amorphous sound, almost a living thing with a groove for a heartbeat, that's greater than the sum of its parts.

``We're just trying to stretch out the material and let it breathe and grow and be a little different every night,'' String Cheese Incident bassist Keith Moseley says.

Jam bands also break from the convention that the function of touring is primarily to promote albums. For jam bands, the live concert seems to come first, and they tour constantly.

Many of these bands also slip easily from genre to genre, in an age when record companies like their bands to fall into neat, marketable categories.

Philadelphia's Disco Biscuits, who played the Barrymore last month, add a techno-funk gloss to their rock jams, while String Cheese Incident can mix bluegrass, Latin jazz, rock and reggae.

Colorado-based String Cheese Incident will perform completely different shows when they play the Barrymore Theatre tonight and Thursday.

``We're trying to do a thing now where each night it's a different band member's turn to come up with something different,'' Moseley says. ``It might be a different tune, a cover tune that we'll learn at sound check or an idea for a jam or something. We like to try and push ourselves a little bit to help keep things fresh and grow musically.''

Because each live show is different, some fans will travel with a band, seeing dozens of shows. Others will record and trade tapes of their favorite bands. This practice is not only allowed by the bands, it's encouraged, because it gets their music in as many hands as possible.

All this might sound awfully familiar to fans of the Grateful Dead, who held similar views toward performing and taping.

In fact, it's the Grateful Dead, along with Frank Zappa, Little Feat, the Allman Brothers and others, who could be considered the grandfathers of the current breed.

There's plenty of crossover between bands and generations, with the old masters of jam bands playing with the newer bands, and musicians sitting in with each other during festivals, says Stewart of Stewsday Productions.

That cross-generational appeal also extends to the fans.

``I'm a guy who saw 250 Grateful Dead shows, and so I find it to be pleasant,'' Barrymore Theater owner Steve Sperling says. ``They're very musical.''

The second generation of jam bands has much more familiar names -- Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Widespread Panic. They've graduated to the larger arenas (both Phish and Dave Matthews sold out the Kohl Center on their last stop through Madison) and sell tons of albums.

Those bands were once at the level that Galactic and moe. are at now, touring exhaustively, building a loyal fan base in some areas, especially in college towns like Madison.

``These are hardworking bands that are literally traveling up and back throughout the country, and they're putting on three- and three-and-a-half-hour shows every night,'' Sperling says.

The Barrymore has booked a raft of jam band shows this fall. Besides this week's String Cheese shows, the Disco Biscuits, moe., Big Wu and Dark Star Orchestra have already played there, with Galactic still to come on Nov. 12.

Stewart brings a fan's zeal to his role in bringing such music to Madison (Stewsday is co-producing upcoming shows by Galactic and Jazz Is Dead).

And, in fact, he started as a UW-Madison student who loved the music and was frustrated that so little of it was coming to Madison. He said the fun, communal feeling that grows out of such music is a sharp contrast from depressing bands like Marilyn Manson.

The very first show promoted by Stewsday Productions was a String Cheese Incident show in 1996. Stewart says there's a network of fans in town who pass along tapes and information about the bands.

Stewart recalled a small show by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten that he was promoting. He told a few friends about it, and his phone started ringing a half hour later. The show sold out before he had time to notify newspapers about it.

``There's a whole load of kids out there who just like to cut loose and have fun and get funky,'' Stewart says.