Feature: Jam band evolution

  • B. Hockensmith Photography
From the December 27, 2011 edition

You can learn a lot about a music festival by which artists get the large-font treatment. When the Rothbury Festival first hit western Michigan in 2008, most of the biggest, boldest names were what you might expect from a neo-hippie gathering — Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, Trey Anastasio of Phish, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews Band.

A closer look revealed new influences creeping into the jam-band festival circuit. Hip-hop, indie rock and ska — Snoop Dogg, even — peppered the playbill, but perhaps the most surprising development was the inclusion of electronics-infused acts like Galactic, Disco Biscuits and STS9. Even a few DJs made the cut.

By the time Rothbury returned in 2011, it had been rechristened the Electric Forest Festival and DJs Tiesto, Bassnectar and Pretty Lights dominated the marquee. A scene once defined by endless guitar solos was now fully infiltrated by those who unleash throbbing digital bass with the push of a button.

“The DJ/electronic scene and the jam scene … it’s almost like joining forces, and they’re making a super scene now,” said Rob Chafin, drummer for Ohio “psychedelic dance rock” band The Werks.

It’s a brave new world, and on New Year’s Eve many aspects of it will converge in Columbus.

The Werks and Ohio-born “live electronics” jammers Papadosio — both were on the Electric Forest bill this year — will co-headline the LC this Friday and Saturday in a flurry of traditional rock instruments comingling with laptops and synthesizers. On the second night, a lineup of DJs will join the band. Among them is rising Columbus DJ/VJ duo roeVy, who made a splash in September at The Werks’ camping-centric Werk Out festival in Bellefontaine.

While the Grateful Dead logo isn’t that different from roeVy’s demonic robot masks, this is not a development most people anticipated. Skrillex and The String Cheese Incident seem like strange bedfellows. Yet there they are side by side on many a festival lineup, with bands like Papadosio and The Werks bridging the gap.

Papadosio, now based in Asheville, North Carolina, formed in 2006 from jam sessions at Ohio University hippie haven O’Hooley’s. They began as a straightforward classic-rock jam band, but electronics seeped in quickly.

“The genre is so huge that it kind of envelops every style,” Papadosio guitarist Anthony Thogmartin said. “When Billy [Brouse] showed up, he had an analog synthesizer, and that was what we jammed with. The computer happened on stage maybe three months into playing.”

The Werks, founded in the Dayton jam-band scene around the same time, experienced a similar progression: “We’re definitely more electronic sounding than we used to be,” Chafin said.

Credit the proliferation of music festivals in part for the merging of movements. From Tennessee’s 80,000-strong Bonnaroo down to the Werk Out festival, which drew 1,500 this year, large outdoor events are acting as a Petri dish for new music discovery. Not only are DJs and live electronic bands in the mix; funk and bluegrass are resurgent, too. In such an open-minded (and sometimes drug-fueled) environment, anything goes.

Colin Garchar is a walking manifestation of the new-school festival scene: A white college student in a hemp necklace who attends Umphrey’s McGee concerts, vibes out to Pretty Lights’ psychedelic DJ sets and participates in freestyle cyphers with Columbus rap royalty. When the ball drops this New Year’s Eve, so will “Apocalypse Inc. Vs. Pretty Lights - Future Science,” an online album of Pretty Lights rap remixes by Garchar’s hip-hop group, Apocalypse Inc., featuring contributions from Garchar’s mentor, Copywrite, and Los Angeles underground hip-hop star Element.

Garchar, who hands out demos at Bonnaroo every year and performed there in 2009, sees the project as a chance to continue breaking down walls.

“Basically what I’m trying to do is just bring people together with this album,” Garchar said. “If we’re not being progressive when we’re making music, then what are we doing?”

Jam bands consuming other styles isn’t a new phenomenon.

“The jam band thing has always been an amalgam of a bunch of things,” said Eric Lanese, drummer for Ekoostik Hookah, which has been touring since 1991 and hosting its semi-annual Hookahville festivals since 1994. “After a while, people’s tastes change.”

Hookah, which will play its annual New Year’s Eve show at Newport Music Hall this Saturday, has been around long enough to see lots of permutations of the jam band scene. And Lanese knows his history well enough to know that what’s going on at festivals now has been happening in spurts since the ’60s.

“Bill Graham was putting bands together on the same stage way back when,” Lanese said. “I think Buddy Rich opened for The Grateful Dead.”

The progression isn’t always smooth. Garchar, for one, can’t stand dubstep DJs. And Papadosio’s Thogmartin knows lots of musicians who get upset when DJs double their crowd. But in a genre geared toward blasting through genre walls to discover new experiences, the tide doesn’t seem to be turning away from DJs and jam bands coexisting. Bands like The Werks and Papadosio are happy to keep exploring the gap as long as there are new surprises to be found.

“We’re going to try until we can’t do it anymore,” Thogmartin said, “to continue to be the wild-card band.”