The thrill goes on for septuagenarian blues-man B.B. King.
The "Ambassador of the Blues" kicks off his twelfth annual B.B. King Music Festival on July 25th in Las Vegas, Nevada, launching a tour that will showcase his latest album, Reflections, as well as material spanning his fifty-year career. The blues legend has asked guitarist Jeff Beck to accompany him.
King has also recruited Galactic and MOFRO, two bands associated with the jamband scene, whose presence on the bill "signals a new direction for the festival and portrays B.B. and Jeff's desire to embrace these young bands and their dedicated fans," according to the tour’s official press release.
King has become the latest and biggest mainstream star to court the increasingly influential jamband demographic. His flirtation with the scene began in February when he appeared on stage for an extended set of blues classics with Phish, before a stunned crowd at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
"Playing with Phish was a lot of fun for me," a relaxed and grinning King said at a press conference at John Jay College in New York City in June.
When asked what he thought about "jambands," King looked quizzical, seeming not to understand the label.
Then, seizing on the first part of the phrase, King declared: "Jamming is a very healthy thing."
The blues legend reminisced about his younger days playing on the legendary Chitlin Circuit and spoke of the difficulty he and other black players had finding places to jam because many of the clubs were segregated.
In 1968, after over a decade as a respected Southern blues guitarist, King finally struck gold, smashing racial barriers with his adaptation of Roy Hawkins’ "The Thrill Is Gone," which established King’s reputation as the premier blues-man of his generation.
In recent years, the mainstream music industry has seen its profit margins shrink due to a sluggish economy and decreasing record sales, thanks in large part it claims, to "Internet piracy."
Meanwhile, the jamband scene has quietly exploded, nurturing the careers of dozens of bands who may not make as much money as their mainstream counterparts, but who find themselves playing before much more sustainable audiences.
The mainstream music industry is increasingly taking notice. Sensing an opportunity to win new fans, artists as varied as James Brown, Joshua Redman, Kid Rock, Joan Osbourne, The Roots, and Sonic Youth have sought out jamband crowds.
This path is not new: Over the last decade, several mainstream musicians have tried to capitalize on the jamband scene, such as Dave Matthews, Les Claypool, Medeski Martin & Wood, and John Scofield, by tailoring their sound to jamband audiences and relentlessly touring and appearing at jamband festivals.
King's embrace of the jamband scene is further evidence that the socio-musical movement spawned by the Grateful Dead is attracting the attention of the mainstream music world.
By Jay Blakesberg
The jamband aesthetic encompasses a wide a range of styles, just as the Grateful Dead did: folk, rock, blues, bluegrass, jazz, and funk. Because the typical jamband fan is so open to different styles of music, the scene comfortably accommodates bands as varied as Yonder Mountain String Band, Sound Tribe Sector 9, and Widespread Panic.
What unites all of these bands is their emphasis on creating a new and transformative experience for their listeners. Thus set-lists change daily, old gems and new covers are "busted out," and change, evolution and maturity, in the form of improvisation, are revered.
The concert industry's growing infatuation with this new audience demographic is understandable. At a time when concert promoters are grappling with a tepid economy, increasingly fickle concertgoers and a dearth of new and compelling live acts, the exploding jamband community looks increasingly attractive.
Sure, jambands aren’t known for selling a lot of records, but the grass roots networks that form around them, both online and at their concerts, have clearly gotten the attention of the music industry, and may suggest an alternative music business model for the post-Napster generation.
High profile musicians such as Neil Young, Steve Winwood and James Brown, as well as a host of smaller acts on the cusp of mainstream super-stardom like The Roots, Jack Johnson, and The Flaming Lips have all sought out jamband crowds at festivals like Bonnaroo and Berkfest.
Live concerts are the lynch-pin of the jamband universe, and fans demonstrate an insatiable appetite for the live experience, many hitting the road for weeks at a time to follow their favorite band, only to return home to trade the latest concert recordings and engage in lengthy online discussions of the band's performances. These are the fans that musicians dream of having.
By Adam Gulledge
But the actual music of many bands associated with the jam scene is not always accessible to pop music fans, or appropriate for the short-attention span format and flashy marketing favored by pop music culture.
That is why there are no Britneys' at Bonnaroo.
But if their seemingly scattered tastes seem hard to pin down, jamband audiences do exhibit one clear characteristic that greatly appeals to concert promoters: good behavior.
Since Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the scene that was birthed on Grateful Dead tour has widely been viewed as a marginal assemblage of nostalgic hippies, liberal arts stoners, and transient outcasts. Every once in a while overcrowding and sporadic scuffles with authorities made news. In certain parts of the country, opportunistic drug dealers and thugs enjoyed free range amongst thousands of well-intentioned fans, contaminating a free and largely benevolent environment.
But these low-points, usually occurring at ill-run if beloved venues such as Red Rocks and Highgate, were by far the exception to the rule. More often then not, Dead shows, and the large Phish, Panic, and Cheese shows that followed them have featured kind and respectful behavior by concert goers.
"Festivarians," as they are called at Telluride and High Sierra Music Festival, two of the most popular jamband festivals in the country, represent a demographic the concert industry might have once disparagingly dismissed as a bunch of hippies scrounging to gain admittance to the next show. But in reality they are much more well behaved than many other music fans, most notably the heavy metal denizens who turned Woodstock 2000 into an apocalyptic frenzy of violence and destruction.
Bonnaroo, the mother of jamband festivals, is quickly becoming the largest music festival in the country, according to Billboard magazine. This year, the festival featured mainstream acts such as James Brown and Sonic Youth as well as acts representing hip-hop, electronica, country and even art-rock. The festival sold out in sixteen days, without the benefit of traditional advertising, and garnered glowing reviews for its musical diversity, organization, and safe and respectful atmosphere.
Whereas modern pop music emphasizes the hook, the production and the image, the jamband scene encourages exploration, soul, and above all else, improvisation.
Thus the scene has mostly stayed below the radar of the major music industry, with the notable exception of the Dave Matthews Band, which found a formula for crossing over into pop superstardom, defying jamband convention by selling millions of records.
Because many jambands encourage live concert recording and trading, their actual studio album sales are modest, but record sales do not accurately reflect the actual fan-base of most jambands. Fans of the genre’s elder statesmen, Phish, Widespread Panic, and String Cheese Incident, focus on live performances, and while many buy the latest studio album, their primary concern is trading high quality band-sanctioned live concert recordings.
Unlike mainstream artists and music industry executives whose careers depend on "moving product" and thus oppose free song downloading, the successful jamband sports an audience that legally trades free high quality live recordings over the Internet. The grassroots network that results from this exchange creates the conditions for the future success of the band.
Although allowing live concert recordings might appear counter-intuitive to many in the mainstream pop market, jambands have known for some time that there are longer-term benefits to allowing such activity. The process of accumulating live shows, cherishing favorite performances and seeking out the latest live material imbues the fan with an interest in the band’s continued vitality. The connections made in the process of trading the band’s music create a grassroots community of like-minded fans.
This feeling of community amongst fans at shows and the shared, occasionally winking, affinity (Weir Everywhere) that exists between strangers in "the real world" can build an almost messianic brand allegiance that Nike, McDonald’s, and Coca Cola would envy.
And unlike the pop music scene that constantly struggles with how to reinvent itself, the jamband community is in a constant state of regeneration, which means it is around to stay. As older bands like Phish, Panic and Cheese ride off into the sunset, younger bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9, Yonder Mountain String Band, and The Slip step in and captivate old and new listeners alike.
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