Jam bands have a niche audience. The long stretches of improvised and often experimental rock alienate many listeners, but these elements are exactly what drive hardcore jam fans to follow their favorite artists from gig to gig across the country — no two shows sound the same. In other words, those who get it, get it. Those who don’t, well, they’re missing out.
Surprisingly, fraternity guys are among the biggest fans of jam in the country, dropping acid and sliding into k-holes right alongside the wooks and the hippies in the crowd. It might seem strange that we’re such big fans of the genre, but it makes sense. Think about it. Jam is essentially artists with little to no planning or rehearsal throwing one huge, awesome, booze and drug-fueled party. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn. Also, jam music creates the perfect laid back atmosphere for sitting on a couch in the front yard with a cooler.
To celebrate the sound we help keep alive, I’ve compiled a list of the best jam bands in the game. These groups are religion to a lot of people, so there’s bound to be some offense. But not too much. It’s difficult for die hard fans of the genre to stay mad for very long.
Note: I excluded The Allman Brothers Band as well as Dave Matthews Band from the list. They jam, but they’re not jam bands.
I always tell people who dismiss jam bands to give moe. a listen. The band from Buffalo tends to incorporate a lot more melody in their songs, making their sound easier to latch onto than the spacey stylings of their peers (that’s not to say they don’t make up a ton of riffs on the spot). They also throw in a hearty dose of rock and just a dash of country.
5. Umphrey’s McGee
Describing what Umphrey’s sounds like is close to impossible. Just imagine if The Police, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, and The Beatles all got really stoned around a campfire and picked up their instruments. That’s the best I can do. Umphrey’s will start shredding some absolutely face-melting guitar solos, but the background remains light and fluttery. It’s a trip.
4. The String Cheese Incident
Cheese incorporates a lot of similar elements as the previous two entries on this list, but adds more of a bluegrass influence, as wells as some reggae. It sounds like the theme song for a movie about a Jamaican dude hitchhiking the Colorado rockies. Listening to Cheese can also be a rollercoaster of emotions. The best example of this is their song “Sirens,” which starts with dark lyrics about disasters accompanied by heavy, foreboding bass lines and ominous harmonica, then seamlessly transitions into happy, all-hold-hands lyrics and upbeat guitar strumming.
3. Widespread Panic
Widespread is the jam band of the southeast, carving out a dedicated fanbase in the region with a heavier sound that draws from southern rock, blues-rock, and even hard rock influences. They’ve also got a bunch of fans in Colorado — they currently hold the record for most sold-out performances at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. Widespread’s music is less airy than the other bands on this list, and you can almost bang your head to parts of some songs. Almost.
Phish picked up where Grateful Dead left off, and after a couple brief hiatuses, they’re still going strong today. They’ve never had mainstream success or radio play, but still rose to become one of the biggest names in music through word of mouth. They’re stuff is super psychedelic and experimental. The songs are often about bizarre fantasy landscapes. The drummer wears a moomoo and sometimes uses an Electrolux vacuum as an instrument. Shit can get weird.
1. Grateful Dead
These are the guys who started it all. The Godfathers of Jam. There’s a reason you see their signature skull logo plagiarized on the backs of countless fraternity t-shirts. Rising to fame amidst the acid-fueled counterculture movement of San Francisco, the term psychedelic rock wouldn’t exist without them. Their frontman, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995, but the group still plays reunion shows to this day, collaborating with various artists. You can catch their latest incarnation, Dead & Company (which features a surprisingly capable John Mayer) this summer..