Words by Benji Feldheim :: Images by Sam Friedman
"Our puritan roots are deep." –Hugh Hefner
In the United States, pleasure is often confused with vice. Strict laws punish people for smoking weed or buying sexual favors, putting a marginal stigma on anyone participating in such acts. Yet, Americans - fearful of the illegality - are inherently fascinated by these indulgences. We are practically obsessed with people who partake with abandon. Hence, we have labels that further add negativity toward simple pleasures. For such reasons the jam scene is hardly spoken of in mainstream outlets without reference to drugs. The city of Amsterdam shares this characterized burden. Amsterdam has a rich culture of art appreciation found in the Rijksmuseum (pronounced 'reiks') and Van Gogh museum, as well as in significant historical landmarks like the Anne Frank house. Bands playing within the scene push the boundaries of the genre and blur the lines of stylistic identities, thriving on the energy of spontaneity. For these and other reasons, Amsterdam was the perfect place to throw a music festival.
Lawrence Shapiro directed the Jam in the 'Dam film after cutting his teeth on what he called the CliffsNotes of jam scene coverage. He filmed several CNN news segments for the first three Bonnaroo Festivals and produced clips of IT, Coventry, and Jam Cruise. For the Jam in the 'Dam film, he wanted to exemplify the nature of the scene by showing performances in their entirety.
"I could stick with the song, not just in filming but in editing, even if it's a fifteen minute song," said Shapiro. "With the CNN things I just tried to capture the energy and messages that were being espoused, but it just didn't give you enough time to get the interplay, like ten minutes into the tune, the bass player came in and played a nasty line. That's really the essence of jam music."
A goal of the film was to make a professional product highlighting the talents of the bands that played, but also the community and dedication of the fans willing to cross an ocean to see these groups. The film was meant to be informative for people unfamiliar with Amsterdam, the bands, and the scene around the music.
"We wanted to represent these bands, the festival, and the DVD as a pro effort," said Shapiro. "We didn't want it looking like someone threw it together in their garage. This was to be a real product, filmed by professional cameramen with high quality equipment and expert sound engineering. This is to give some legitimacy to the scene and to explain it properly to the people who aren't a part of it."
Umphrey's McGee :: Jam in the 'Dam 2005
The result is a stimulating, engaging film that uses subtlety and meticulousness to grab the viewer's attention. From the grainy black and white opening footage of Amsterdam's streets paired with xylophone and accordion gypsy jazz to the closing credits tied with Particle's performance of "Mind Over Matter," the energy never wanes. The performances are full of alternating shots, split screens, and little effect touches that match each band's style. Attention is called to details one would probably miss even if attending the shows. In between the sets are warm, genial chats with the musicians and fans, both laughing often, and scenery shots of the beautiful city. The sounds are crisp and the visuals are catching. Let us take a look at this film by chapter. Feel free to skip around:
1. Music is the BEST
If Stop Making Sense taught the world anything, music and visuals tying into each other, relying on one another, make for a memorable film. From Umphrey's schizophrenic attack to Keller's loops, Particle's dark grooves, and the Disco Biscuits' frenzied intensity, each band performance was shot and cut to display the intricacies of the bands' styles.
"When you're that serious about the music, it needs to come full-circle into comedy, somehow. To be that serious... I mean, it's rock 'n' roll." –Jake Cinninger
Umphrey's McGee's set starts off the first disc. The mix of the band's group mentality entwined with distinct leading roles came out strong with a mix of full-band shots and zoom-ins on band members adding certain colors. When Brendan Bayliss belts out the chorus to "Believe the Lie," the camera catches his full movement as he backs away from his mic. Yet when Kris Myers hammers out a fill, the focus is on him, but not before cutting back to Jake Cinninger as he adds to the guitar section. When Joel Cummins places a low howl from his keys, the shot is on him until the rest of the band jumps back in and the shot pans across the whole stage.
Umphrey's McGee :: Jam in the 'Dam 2006
Too frequently concert films will have zoom-in shots of the guitarist's or keyboardist's hands and will stay there long enough so that the viewer wants to look elsewhere. Yet here, "hand attention" doesn't last long. During "Hurt Bird Bath" less than a minute passes between focusing on Cummins' piano smashing, a priceless constipated face on Andy Farag pounding the congas, and a full-band shot as they begin the song's main theme. During the early guitar slashing in "JaJunk," split-screen shots show the finger dexterity of both Bayliss and Cinninger but also throw in Cummins maintaining the starting riff during rests in the guitar parts. During the middle jam section, the zoom is on Ryan Stasik's bass to kick off funk into a country tune. In the heavily layered part near the end of the song, the shots jump to whatever is being played in that split second. It goes from the tinkering sixteenth notes on the piano immediately to the double hits by every other instrument and back.
"Most of the bands in this genre play to their surroundings." –Steve Molitz
Particle's set opens with a tune called "King Hassan," which "originated in Amsterdam," according to Steve Molitz. Early in the tune, Molitz's keyboard line continues as the bass, drums, and guitar all drop out. But when they all return, three boxes line the top of the screen with shots of all of the instruments that came back with a long full-band shot beneath them. A glowing green silhouette of drummer Darren Pujalet resonates for a few seconds and subsides before being too gaudy. Hidden in this collage is a zoom onto Pujalet's bass drum head with a reflection of Charlie Hitchcock's guitar gyrating with the beat. In the beginning of "Ed and Molly," a bright light shines down on Eric Gould playing the punchy, high-end bass line to serve as a guide to an upbeat yet sinister-sounding tune. The overall look of their set has a slick, controlled steadiness working with the collective grooves of the band. During "Zia," off-beat fills mark changes the band makes to other sections in the song. In one such change, an effect is used making it look as if bassist Eric Gould is being flushed down in favor of a look at the whole band. Throughout the set, a dark eeriness pervades the sequence.
Steve Molitz :: Jam in the 'Dam 2005
"The whole idea of my occupation is to entertain myself for a few hours, and hopefully the fun I'm having will be passed over to the audience." –Keller Williams
Attempting an array of shots around a one-man act sounds a lot like trying to ice skate uphill with a fifty-pound weight strapped to your chest. With Keller's set, the sequences where he uses loops are revealed through a string of flashbacks, showing him playing the different pieces of his loop sections as they are heard. Careful editing made it possible to watch him play all the many pieces of the song, instead of simply seeing him manipulate the sounds through an onstage soundboard. The loop flashbacks are shaded differently for emphasis and fall right in time with the actual sound. Keller's set was an opportunity to show more crowd shots and to give a feel for the intimacy of the Melkweg. During "Breathe," Keller slowly builds a percussion wall with sounds from nine toys, including small chimes, cabasa, claves, pastel-colored plastic tubes that he hits on his knees, and a bird call whistle. The result is an editing work of art elucidating how Keller constructs his layered pieces. Yet, not diminished is his presence with only his voice and guitar. Shots of his hand banging interspersed with close-ups of his intense picking show the size of his one man sound. An interesting shot also arises during "Dance of the Freek." Before Keller adds the Theremin into the looped dance sequence, the camera zooms in on the audience through one of the steel loops used to manipulate the sound of the strange synthesizer. What looks at first like just a crowd shot is also a preview of sounds to come.
Keller Williams :: Jam in the 'Dam 2005
"I think it was something that was bound to happen with electronic music pervading the [music scene]." –Aron Magner
The Disco Biscuits' set had a bizarre mix of serene, swaying groove and fierce intensity strewn with syncopated stops. It began with "Jigsaw Earth," a tune going from dub reggae to jumpy rock, punctuated with loud strikes on off-beats. For the better part of song, the shots shift delicately easing the viewer into the tune. As the energy picks up, the camerawork follows suit, swiftly cutting from one band member to the next. As "Jigsaw Earth" builds, the shot choice accentuates a triplet fill done by the whole band by adding up to four split-screen shots, showing each musician making their hits. In the chorus section, a six-way split-screen showed the entire band from a few different angles. During "Aceetobe," a zoom-in on Aron Magner wobbles as the band hits a wavering note together. Toward the beginning of "Home Again," split-screen and a panning shot combine, showing a swath of musicians on stage. For this song, the band had Brendan and Joel from Umphrey's playing. The split-screen boxes show a more intimate look under the broad scope of the entire stage shown in the panning shot. This tune showed an effective use of fading out from shot to shot, as with so many people on stage many shots were used. Without the fade, people might start throwing up from the quick movement. As the song climaxes and Bayliss tears through a solo, a layered effect is used with Bayliss in the background and a rotating shot of the entire venue showing the energy of the entire room.