Behind the studded belts of indie rock and the bling bling of hip hop lies a smiling, overly relaxed posse of music lovers. These fans, often trademarked unfairly with long, not-so-clean hair and an air of patchouli around them, often have a common thread: their love of the jam band. The beauty of the jam band, much like other overarching genres like “rock” or “hip hop,” is that it encompasses a vast array of musical acts that view constant touring and a celebration of live performance as the essence to their survival.
Grammy-hoarding Santana was once a mainstay at the jam festival circuit, along with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Nowadays, bands like Phish, the String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic dominate the main stages and have collected their own devoted followers who trek cross-country for shows. With the unofficial 4/20 holiday just days away, two bands, New Monsoon and the Messengers, are preparing to pack Santa Barbara’s Bar Absinthe (as well as Anisq’ Oyo’ Park) this weekend and show the trucker hat-wearing, diesel jeans-loving UCSB kiddies how potent a solid live jam can be.
“Expect a really high-energy performance with a really healthy dose of improvisation, though we’re trying really hard to not be too noodly,” Bo Carper said. He is the acoustic guitarist/banjo player for New Monsoon, an Eastern-influenced rock/country septet from San Francisco. And just what does it mean to be too noodly, you ask?
“That’s one of the big criticisms of a lot of jam bands: endless jamming and noodling,” Carper said. “We have a diverse repertoire of music, which contains more tightly crafted songs. We definitely try to mix it up.”
After graduating from Penn State, Carper and friend Jeff Miller began putting together the diverse group that would make up New Monsoon. Currently, there are electric and acoustic guitars, bass, drum kit, keys and congas, timbales, tabla, banjo, bongos, dobros and didgeridoos. Phew. Their influences include Latin, Indian, African, funk and bluegrass styles that seem to travel the globe several times over. This quickly rising band also gets extra points for having a band member named Phil “The Pianimal” Ferlino. Righteous.
“We’re kind of at that level building up to the point where we will hopefully be headlining these bigger festivals in the next year or two,” Carper said. “Right now, we’re one of the ‘featured acts,’ at [the High Sierra Music Festival] on July 4, but it’s our third year there.”
Carper also adds a little insight into the world of jam band lovers for those, well, a little too used to rackety college rock or ultra-poppy KIIS 107.7.
“It’s a very taper-friendly culture,” Carper said. “The festival scene is basically comprised of bands who tour very heavily, as opposed to bands who might be succeeding on record sales and just do tours to support their recent label record. In terms of the fans, [they] mostly would prefer a live show or a live bootleg tape to watching a music video or buying a studio record release.”
The appreciation for the live experience in the festival/jam circuit has created a legacy of devout followers, once labeled “Deadheads,” who spend weeks or months at a time tracking their favorite artists around the country.
“It’s a culture that likes to travel and builds their travel plans around seeing the band that they like,” Carper said. “People are traveling from Houston to Denver for a run of shows to see their favorite band, but also to connect to their close friends and family that are there. It’s a prominent feature of the scene.”
On the other end of the jam band spectrum lies a smaller, local band like the Messengers, who admit to having “some jam elements” but aren’t necessarily ready to forfeit lyrical content in the name of endless guitar solos.
“I think the thing that characterizes us the most are our harmonies,” said Eric Cardenas, guitarist for the Messengers. “The lyrics are pretty conscious, too. We try to provide a message as well as some music that will get people groovin’ at the same time.”
Cardenas and bandmates are all UCSB alumni who have settled into lives that enrich the local community in countless ways. Cardenas works for the Environmental Defense Center, while another guitarist is the director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, both nonprofit groups. Other band members include a teacher and a local county worker. After running the I.V. party performance gamut, the Messengers were able to spread their socially conscious message while performing for the Environmental Affairs Board at UCSB, headlining local Earth Day festivals and playing benefits for the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and the People’s March for Economic Justice.
“We talk about issues like fair trade versus free trade, war and peace issues, the lack of leadership, local issues and global issues that are all worked lyrically into our songs,” Cardenas said. “We have a song called ‘Conspire’ about free trade and another called ‘Better Days,’ about ‘Resident’ Bush.”
With the recent hotbed of political activity both domestically and internationally, even a smaller group like the Messengers feels the heat and the need for public voice.
“I think a lot of our songs are developing lyrically in response to the current situation,” Cardenas said. “We’re definitely pumping out more songs that are relevant to what’s going on now.”
This eagerness to be heard is what makes the rock/reggae/folk fusion of the Messengers a distinct offshoot of today’s jam band scene.
“Bands nowadays have kind of lost more of the lyrics and gained more of the jam,” Cardenas said. “When you go to a ‘jam band concert’ you find more long, drawn-out jams with a funky, groovy kind of feel. Though we definitely draw some jams into our songs, they don’t go for 20 minutes on end with no lyrics.”
Though it would be impossible to encapsulate a flourishing musical genre between two bands, it remains intriguing to take a sneak peek inside any artistic network free from media domination. New Monsoon, with its sweeping range of cultural mish-mashing lies a distance on the musical spectrum from the Messengers, but still manages to share one common thread: the hope that their audience will listen, appreciate and, most importantly, get down with its bad self.
“We feel that our music has a message,” Cardenas said. “[But] it’s always funky. It’s always danceable and people seem to dig it.”