Snoe.down throw down: Getting lost in the jam

moe. performing at Rutland’s Spartan Arena on March 26.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 3/31/11]  

Another Snoe.down has come and gone. For a brief moment again this year, Rutland was the center of the jamband universe. For three days, moe. held court at Spartan Arena and in Killington, bringing with them a nation of rabid but respectful fans, affectionately referred to as “moe.rons.”

While the official numbers have not been released, ticket sales going into the weekend were on par with 2010, which means the weekend likely drew around 5,000 people to the area. (Huzzah, for Rutland.)

Jambands have a complicated and uneasy position in the larger music world. Despite counting some of the most talented and proficient musicians in the world among its ranks, the genre has never been able to fully shake its hippie roots.

Those roots, of course can be traced back to the founding fathers of the jamband scene, the Grateful Dead, whose psychedelic readings of traditional rock, country and Americana in the 1960s cast a long shadow. (Though, one could successfully argue that the origins of jambands lie in jazz, especially, the form-defying sub-genre of bebop exemplified by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.)

For the uninitiated, “jam-band” is the too-broad term ascribed to bands whose music is heavily improvisational and, often, spontaneous — though, the latter suggests that these musicians are making it up as they go along, which while being true on one level is wholly inaccurate on another.

I say “too-broad” because it is often lazily used by critics outside the scene as a catchall for any band that places instrumental arrangements and improvisation over lyrical deftness, catchy hooks and commercial success.

There is also a tendency to use the term “indie” in a similarly erroneous shorthand to vaguely describe both the independent music world’s sound and a scene. (This tendency, I suppose, comes from our societal infatuation with pigeonholing things into easily understandable categories.)

In a recent inter view with moe. guitarist Al Schnier, we talked about the jamband scene and its frequent lack of love from the broader music world. We joked that, despite the scene’s heavy concentration of first-class talent, there is still a tendency for “hipper” pockets of the industry to look down their noses.

The uber-hipster music criticism website Pitchfork is a prime example of such elitism. Bands like Radio-head, Animal Collective and Yo La Tengo are critical darlings in the indie world, but despite all three being improvisational heavyweights in their live shows, they are not qualified as jambands.

This phenomenon makes Schnier laugh as it reveals the insignificance of these categories. Music is music, and bands are going to play what and how they like. If the critics need to qualify and categorize, so be it.

I asked Schnier if moe. ever shied away from the jamband classification as I know some bands who get saddled with the label have.

“This is our scene,” he said, demonstrating his comfort with moe.’s status among its fans and the industry at large.

Another common criticism is that lyrics take a backseat to the music. This is a generalization not without some truth. The Vermont jamband Phish — next to the Dead, probably the most well known jam-band — has a number of songs whose lyrics on their face are inscrutable fairy tales about dancing pigs or ill-fated cats.

One of Phish’s most popular songs, a tight, mellifluous composition entitled, “You Enjoy Myself,” has only four words and in live performances often clocks in at more than 20 minutes.

Similarly, some of the biggest cheers of moe.’s Snoe.down performances came late in set one on the second night when the familiar chord progression for the fan-favorite “Meat” emerged out of a murky jam. The only lyric in the otherwise instrumental and improv-heavy song is … you guessed it, “meat.”

The final criticism for jambands is their lack of commercial success. They willfully create music that is not radio-friendly. Like their indie cousins, they often operate on their own record labels and tend to build their reputations through heavy touring and direct engagement with their fan base by allowing taping and trading of live shows, and making their music readily available online.

What makes one band strive for mainstream commercial success while another is content to remain under the radar? There is no objective answer here. For some bands, it’s not about success; it’s about the music (man). I admit that’s a big cliché, but I think it’s true to a certain extent.

Talking to Schnier ahead of Snoe.down, he explained that one motivation for the festival was to get “all our fans together in one place.”

In addition, he also noted that the festival is about family. He mentioned Snoe. down is a family trip for him. In particular, Schnier said he was looking forward to skiing with his son, who this year is old enough to tag along with Schnier on the slopes.

So maybe it’s all how you define success. For some, its album sales and radio play. For others, it’s doing what you love and being able to do it with the people who are most important to you — family, friends and fans alike.

For me, the more the scene changes, the more it stays the same. I certainly look at it with different (clearer?) eyes than I did back in high school and college.

Stepping into Spartan Arena for moe., I felt a twinge of nostalgia. The air was thick with the unmistakable concert odors — patchouli, unwashed hippie and stale smoke — a somewhat unpleasant mix that nonetheless evokes vibrant memories from my past and puts a smile on my face.

Make what you will of the jamband scene. It’s live music, it’s in the moment and without a net. Any given performance can vacillate between aimless noodling, transcendence and everything in between.

But for me, there is nothing quite like those moments when everything just clicks — that moment when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up; when the band, the audience, everyone connects, however briefly, in an instant of shared awareness that something really special is happening.

That’s music.

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