Peter Conners takes on a noble task in his recently published work, JAMerica: The History of the Jam Band and Festival Scene. He attempts to bring to light a clear definition of the term ‘jam band’ and everything it entails. By noting all the similarities and influences of the artists and bands that fall into this seemingly broad genre, Conners makes every effort to give the reader a better idea of how this term has made its way into popular culture and why it’s still there. He offers insight into the seminal moments and venues that have helped spur this counterculture movement into what it is today. And he does this in, perhaps, the most fitting way possible: by having the people who were directly involved in the origins of the scene as well as those who are still prominently involved in it tell their own story.
The book is molded in the same fashion as another popular read that attempts to define and explain a different musical genre, Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Conners spent two years interviewing people who were prominently involved in the early days of the jam band scene and they share their memories and offer insight from everything to early gigs, to developing fan bases, to the rise of show tapers. Whether it’s John Popper rehashing old details from an early gig at Columbia University or Mickey Hart theorizing on the power of music, JAMerica gives the reader first hand tales with little to no filter on them that shine a light on both the jam band scene and the music industry as a whole.
It tells the story of just how influential the now defunct New York City club Wetlands Preserve was for acts like The Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler. It highlights the truly unique and ground breaking origins of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival and how successful modern festivals like Bonnaroo can trace its roots back to this roving experiment of “hippy” bands. It offers an explanation as to how a band like Phish went from playing small club shows to arenas in a matter of years and serves as an excellent teaching tool for any current band looking to do the same. It shows the vast and seemingly universal influence that The Grateful Dead had on bands ranging from Dark Star Orchestra to Jane’s Addiction and everything in between. Along the way, JAMerica tries to take these stories and first hand personal encounters and use them to offer explanations on musical improvisation and paint a picture of the scene that relies on this so heavily. It even attempts to lock down the origins of the word “jam band”. Spoiler alert: esteemed Relix editor Dean Budnick is prominently involved.
Like any good “jam” concert, the book does tend to be a little all over the map at points and shifts from one musical era to another in the blink of an eye. It would also be a little more helpful if the sources were better identified when first used or if there was an earlier written notice that a list of contributing sources and a short bio for each is found in the back of the book. Unless the reader is prominently involved in the music industry, there are bound to be some sources used in this that are not recognizable by name alone.
By having these sources open up and tell their own stories, Peter Conners does an admirable job in giving this popular musical genre both a more tangible definition and the credit it so richly deserves in influencing a generation of bands and artists. Interestingly, it even shows how some acts were initially opposed to being associated with the ‘jam band’ label but have now fully embraced it. By all accounts, JAMerica is the most complete work out there that attempts to tell the story of the jam band scene and how it has reached its current state of popularity. However, it’s important to note that this is still a story being re-written and modified every day.