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.
Photo of Jake Cinninger (Umphrey's McGee) : Jam in the 'Dam 2005 by Sam Friedman
I feel like as a whole the jam scene does not get the respect it deserves as a true musical genre. That was one of the biggest reasons I chose to do this - represent the art that has shaped my life and give back to the scene by showing the scene.
-Lawrence Shapiro :: Producer
2. The Trials of Players and the Missing Fifth Wall: All About People
"The location made it so special," said Steve Molitz of Particle. "You could take those same bands and put on the same show in a different place, and it wouldn't have had the same magic to it. That was the x-factor. You couldn't put your finger on it, but you knew that everybody was just a little left-of-center. It was just really cool to be overseas in a museum and to get tapped on the shoulder, and someone says, 'Hey man, great show at Bonnaroo.' And you start talking, 'Oh, hey thank you. Hey where you from?' Next thing you know, you and that guy are in some coffee shop down the street three hours later and talking politics or something else."
During the interviews with both the band members and the fans, it was clear that the minimal amount of distance that exists between the two diminished under the elation of being in Amsterdam. The bands were comfortable with explaining certain music-making processes but were quick to joke around, almost to remind the viewer that this was a celebration.
The Disco Biscuits & Umphrey's McGee
Jam in the 'Dam 2006
"I appreciated that the bands had great performances and gave us plenty to work with on that end," said Shapiro. "They were all on. And I really appreciated how open the bands were and trusting with doing interviews. You actually get their personalities instead of them giving out stock answers."
The stigma of indulgence hanging over the city and the scene did not impede this gathering. Show goers seemed lucid and aware of the bond shared by the many Americans who descended upon Amsterdam for a few days and of how well they were received by the Dutch.
"We shot interviews at the end of the shows each night," said Shapiro. "We used some footage from after the last night, and everyone is just glowing. There was a magic in the air about this event. Everything went well. No one got hurt. There was no guy screaming about how his bowl got taken away and security had to kick him out. Everyone was so happy, which is the best thing you can ask for. I owe a big thanks to the fans. You're in a mindset to watch a show, and then you come outside and there's a camera in your face. They really helped make this movie."
Jam in the 'Dam 2006
The musicians gave testament to the professionalism of the filming crew, in that they barely noticed the cameras.
"You just have to look at it like it's not there," said Ryan Stasik. "Just play your show, no pressure. Don't think, 'Oh, I'm being filmed. I better not fuck up here.' They're just capturing what's going on. Honestly, aside from the interviews, I didn't even know they were there until I saw the final product. I thought it was great. I thought Larry did a really good job."
"Honestly, the only thing I can say is the film crew and director were so professional and talented," said Molitz. "I think they succeeded in doing their job because I hardly noticed they were making a movie. Their job is to be a fly on the wall, and a fly would have been more obtrusive than they were. They were real organized and totally produced above and beyond what was required. I think the DVD reflects that."
Regardless of the filmmaker's skills and the talents of those being filmed, the chance possibility of capturing a singular moment cannot be replicated. The festival came at a time of major transition for three of the four featured groups. Umphrey's McGee had recently dealt with the death of Brian Schultz, a close friend of the band since their days at Notre Dame University. He was killed by a drunk driver right after their 2005 New Year's performance. Drummer Sam Altman from the Disco Biscuits had announced he would be leaving the band to pursue medicine. At the time of the festival, the band had not made any permanent decisions on a replacement. The Biscuits were able to perform at the festival because it coincided with a break during Altman's studies.
Sam Altman :: Jam in the 'Dam 2005
"Isn't this like a game show, where you don't have to answer the question?" said Marc Brownstein with a large smile on his face when asked about the departure of Altman.
"He wants to go to medical school, and so there's no animosity or anything," explains Brownstein. "It's not like a tumultuous break up, and so we're not rushing through it and getting him off to school. We're here because we can play shows right now as the original Disco Biscuits. We're kinda taking it step by step."
"While I have times like this and while I'm on breaks from school, if these guys were to ask me to play with them, whatever their plans will be, if they ask me to, I would," says Altman.
"Wait! You're going to med school?" says Aron Magner with a sarcastic half smile of disbelief. They all laugh.
Despite such a shake-up, the warmth and camaraderie among the Biscuits is extremely evident.
By the time of the festival, Altman's departure and the tragedy felt by Umphrey's were known by many fans and people around the bands, but one change had yet to materialize. A few months after the festival, Particle announced that guitarist Charlie Hitchcock would be leaving the band. Around the time of his departure, there had been some ambiguity as to whether he left or was fired. During the interviews with Particle, Hitchcock seems somewhat detached and aloof while the other members are laughing and reveling in the atmosphere of the festival. It almost appears that he has something to say but is not talking.
Jam in the 'Dam 2005
"I would say what you are reading there is the beginning of what would happen," said Shapiro in response to observing Hitchcock's demeanor during the interviews. "Particle hadn't really gone down that path yet. It was only discovered later, when we were editing, that we found out this change was happening. What you were vibing from the film is what came to a head three or four months later. It was really only on that feeling level at that particular moment. If Charlie never left the band, then you might think he was just in a quiet mood. It's only now in hindsight that it looks like a predecessor. I wouldn't want to focus on that because they were all so giving, and they were also exhausted."
Regardless of exhaustion and transition, the massive joy felt by the fans and the musicians is unmistakable, especially in the several shots used of the bands and fans interacting. A few times during the film, European fans who had never seen some of their favorite bands before get to meet the musicians. From one reporter's view, those moments of jubilation serve as the perfect microcosm for the many services this festival provided for everyone involved.
3. Nuts and Bolts
"I feel like as a whole the jam scene does not get the respect it deserves as a true musical genre. That was one of the biggest reasons I chose to do this - represent the art that has shaped my life and give back to the scene by showing the scene. We wanted to represent through the DVD these bands and the festival as a professional endeavor." -Lawrence Shapiro
Shapiro decided to film the first Jam in the 'Dam in a similar fashion to how Armand Sadlier came to the revelation to put on the festival in the first place.
The Melkweg :: Jam in the 'Dam 2006
"I've always been tight with Particle, and I was documenting their first tour across Europe," explains Shapiro. "The last stop on their circuit was the Melkweg in Amsterdam, and I filmed them there and it went great. When we got back, someone sent me an email about Jam in the Dam, and I was thinking to myself, 'I was just there filming one of those bands.'"
Sadlier discovered the Melkweg while on a trip with David Sanborn's band. Sanborn's road manager told Sadlier to come to a show of theirs at the Melkweg, and the venue made an impression. Early into the film, Sadlier himself recounts how two months after first experiencing the Melkweg, he wanted to put on a festival around Umphrey's McGee "that wasn't just a concert in a field."
"We talked about it, and he thought it was great idea too," said Shapiro. "He never really thought about filming it, thought it was too crazy to have something like that filmed out in Europe. We ended up having to fly our cinematographer and our unit production manager out to England while we're off in Amsterdam. They loaded up all this camera equipment and got onto a ferry. The ferry went to the Netherlands, and a truck drove another two hours down to us on foreign roads with like a million dollars worth of equipment in the truck (laughs). If you asked me to take my Explorer from L.A. to San Diego with a bunch of equipment, I wouldn't even think twice. That's no problem. But what's this road mean? Liegenschplachenflugen?"
Once the gear was set, Shapiro and crew had the task of filming in an environment where people are there for reasons other than making a movie. The Melkweg is a small venue. Not only would the film crew have to avoid distracting the bands, they would also have to make strides to not interfere with the many fans who traveled far to see the bands perform.
Jam in the 'Dam 2006
"Our whole objective is always to be a fly on the wall, not to interfere," said Shapiro. "We try to have the bands not notice us because I feel it does affect the performance. Jam in the Dam proved a little difficult to find the middle-ground because it was such a small venue and we had a crane camera in there. The fans noticed that, I mean it was a big camera looming overhead. To try and meet the fans half-way, we only filmed the shows that happened in one of the two rooms. That way you could have a camera-free experience also. As for the musicians, we mostly talked with them during the soundchecks. We asked them what the realm of comfort would be with respect to the location of the cameras and didn't infringe on their safety zones. When the shooting was happening, my main thing was to call out shots to the cameramen once it was clear things were safe. It's like if you were surfing and the show is the wave. You have to follow the song."
As a self-proclaimed fan, Shapiro wanted to leave it up to the viewers as to whether they would simply watch the concert footage or the entire movie.
"This is all great and the bands are saying great jokes, but is it still going to be funny when I've seen it twenty times because I own it?" asks Shapiro. "Maybe I just want the music. And maybe today I just want Umphrey's set, and I don't feel like seeing Particle. But tomorrow I will, who knows? It can be in the background too, while you do dishes or at a party. But if you're playing it at a party, and it breaks into an interview..."
Brendan Bayliss (UM) with the Disco Biscuits
Jam in the 'Dam 2005
Shapiro's crew took over nine months to edit all the shots and master the concert recordings in order to polish everything as much as possible.
"With other concert films, I noticed shots or cuts that made you wonder why they were left in like that," said Shapiro. "We spent months and months making sure everything fit and was cohesive. I think a big part of that goes to Mark Wolkon, our editor, and Mark Johnson, our audio engineer. The sound was multi-tracked out and mixed into 5.1 and stereo. It was sent to some of the best mastering houses. The point is that some of the best in the business worked on this audio. Other than that, every edit was labored and thought over at least three times."
4. The City by the Sea
"Amsterdam is featured as much as Umphrey's playing style," said Shapiro. "It would have been a real waste not to take advantage of that, so we spent the first day before the event just filming the scenery. One of my favorite things was filming Keller's interview on a boat. It was a beautiful sunny day, which was lucky since the weather is unpredictable in Amsterdam. We were talking about the experience of traveling overseas to play, and right when he's in the middle of answering that question, a fan is walking over a bridge. He yells to him, 'Keller! What's up?!' I mean, being on a canal in the middle of a foreign city, and here's this fan. It's a crazy synchronicity. It felt like Amsterdam gave back a little."
The city and the scene share a strange bond under the surface, in that both are immediately known for their hedonistic aspects but not given enough credit for their artistic and cultural characteristics. Museums like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh are known worldwide for the rare artifacts housed within. Historical sites like the Anne Frank house serve as a reminder that the Dutch helped those persecuted during the Holocaust at great risk. As the jam scene has a connection to the sixties and seventies, Amsterdam was an epicenter of youth rebellion against old landowner right-wing control during that time. The Provos, so named as they always provoked the establishment, held sit-ins in Vondelpark, marches in Dam Square, and were some of the first people to push for marijuana legalization in the city. Unlike in the United States, such rebellion in Amsterdam actually produced a change in government policy. Also like those in the scene, the Dutch are very friendly and sympathetic to the lost tourist.
The focus is more on the festival, yet interspersed within the film are superb shots of the architecture, canals, and street culture of the city. Major areas of the city, like the student-populated Liedseplein and Dam Square, are shown. A brief section is devoted to the use of bicycles as the main transportation by nearly all of the citizens, to the point where bike paths are built into the layout of the city. If one were there, one would be taking in the culture by day and enjoying the festival at night. In a sense, the film presents what the whole experience might be for a person.
"You've got these musicians creating their art in a land where Van Gogh and Rembrandt made their magic all those years ago," said Shapiro. "It's awe-inspiring art. You wouldn't do the city justice unless you explain the factors that give it its excellence. We do have a short vignette about the Red Light District, explaining the vibe and what the deal was for a few seconds. We also added a coffee shop bonus feature in Disc One, talking about the etiquette and the variety. But all of that stuff is implied. Too much focus on that cheapens the whole thing. The story is going to a foreign world with an art form that is new to the place."
"I feel like if people took the time to really get around Amsterdam and to hang with the locals, they would realize there really is a much deeper culture here than just the publicized sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," said Molitz. "That is all the Americans hear about. The same can be said about the music in the jam scene. There are some seriously profound, moving performances given by these bands all across the genres."
Particle :: Jam in the 'Dam 2005
When all was said and done, it seemed a great relationship was established between the city and the scene.
"One thing you can't deny is that nobody could possibly misinterpret the fans' commitment to the scene and to the music they love," said Molitz. "Jam in the 'Dam was such a reminder of that and so refreshing for me as one of the musicians dedicating my life to this - to know people are out there who are so passionate about the feeling that music gives them that they would travel overseas to hear these bands play."
Having just wrapped up its second year, Jam in the 'Dam is swiftly on the way to reaching the acclaim bestowed upon festivals such as Jam Cruise and even Bonnaroo as far as the near guarantee that an attendee will leave with a glow. The film serves as an intense microcosm of how hard people work within the scene to craft their art to the utmost quality. From the tiny nuances and effects to the sound engineering and even the starting menu where the screen soars into the Melkweg when a scene is selected, the film is an excellent representation of the many features to be found in the scene. Jam in the 'Dam 2005 can thoroughly explain the scene to a newcomer and also re-inspire those who have lost touch.
"I'm getting letters and messages from forty and fifty year-olds who are Deadheads and mostly removed from the scene now with their wife and kids, and they tell me, 'I caught your flick and now I'm totally re-energized by this new scene that I never would have known about,'" said Shapiro.
Chances are mainstream news outlets will not ever see through the surface to communicate the intense art created by the bands within the scene. It is up to those within to capture the scene on film in a method that exudes the same level of professionalism put into the musicianship and the organizing of such events. If films made about the jam scene must adhere to the standards set by Jam in the 'Dam 2005, we may just see the scene earn its due respect.
Click here to purchase the DVD. And click here for more on Jam in the 'Dam.
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