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They flock to the Sail Inn, a larger-than-average dive with an outdoor patio and stage tucked anonymously onto a quiet side street in central Tempe, for 4:20 Fest, an Easter Day party for the local jam-band faithful, though a few here might confuse the two "holidays." Women wear colorful, handmade skirts; so do a few men. Some bring dogs, leaving one handsome but confused husky to roam the grounds with a leash hanging off its neck. Others bring small children, toddlers who join their mommies in communal dancing. Tie-dyed tapestry drapes the stage. A sensual masseuse offers torso massages heavy on the sunscreen. The anti-marijuana law crusaders from the Tucson chapter of NORML are here, too, preaching to the choir, no doubt. And most people, of course, smoke pot -- somewhere. Not in here, though.
"We're not going to be toking joints onstage," says Mike Hanley, the 24-year-old Webmaster of the clearinghouse site AZHeads.com and booker for, um, budding promotional house Intelligroove. "We're not that stupid."
They're also not all that out of the ordinary. I'm from upstate New York, home of jam giants moe. and a five-hour drive from Phish's Burlington, Vermont; I know a true left-field woodchuck when I see one. But there's actually a charming blandness to it all at this event. In the firm tradition of such events, the opening band, Bemsha, features an old dude with a cool mustache on bass and a guitarist who wears a pig mask for part of the set. Another band, Down Easy, showcases a guitarist who may be twice as old as his bandmates. The last band is called Endoplasmic Reticulum, a compendium of seemingly regular-guy players from other local bands that make up the music as they go along. "The endoplasmic reticulum is the important part of the cell. It's what keeps life going," says Reticulum member and 4:20 Fest promoter Kevin Gordon -- another biology-fetishist in a long line of them in Jambandland. Like a growing, dividing cellular colony, 11 people jam onstage by set's end, somehow sustaining a healthy albeit busy groove.
Hanley, the blond preppie among the unshaven, spends his day flipping veggie burgers and hot dogs on a grill, and Gordon, normally the vocalist and percussionist for exciting acid-rockers Mojo Farmers, just chills, smiling and talking to just about everybody.
"To me, [the mythology of 4:20] was more just a good excuse to get people out to enjoy the music," he says.
While festivalgoers sport the dreadlocks, flower dresses, necklaces and other touches you'd expect, most of the people onstage lack much hippie freak factor. Without instruments in their hands, you'd think they were plain boring (several of them use the standard "making music is a beautiful thing" line).
At least the local jam contingent has a place to call home. Gina Lombardi, Sail Inn's co-owner, says that over the past five years, a succession of young bands have come to her for the opportunity to play, following on the heels of its two house bands, Horticulture (beats Blacklight, I guess) and Dead cover band the Noodles. Formerly a blues club, the neighborhood now hosts the Valley's most self-contained scene, one that's starving for a few more viable outlets to enjoy the wacky exploits of their favorite musical gymnasts. Without the Sail Inn, nary a jam-band fan would thrive. Even with it, they're still just one step beyond Mom's garage and a road trip to Boulder.
They might not have to starve too much longer. Thanks in large part to Intelligroove, started last summer as an outgrowth of AZHeads.com (go there now, and peep at an old Derek and the Dominos set list), Phoenix-area jam bands are slowly extending their reach.
"Bands would reach out and say, Hey, can you book us for this show?' I kept saying, No, I don't do that,'" Hanley says. "Then I said, you know, there's obviously a need for it."
Intelligroove now sponsors semi-regular jams at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix called Sessions, in which the Lymbyc Systym, two frizzy-haired brothers who together would make one good Screech, invites a stream of friends to experience the joys of making stuff up. Hanley and partner Dave Biederman are now hosting an increasing number of touring bands, including Colorado's neo-bluegrass outfit Yonder Mountain String Band, which sold out the Bash on Ash in early April, and San Francisco's funkier Tea Leaf Green, which has played the Sail Inn several times. In March, Hanley and Biederman also organized a "Battle of the Jams," a nine-band tournament at the Sail Inn won by the Mojo Farmers over the course of four weeks. Some of the participating musicians say they had never met one another before the battle, strange considering how the jam world's whole philosophy revolves around communion.
"They're helping to create a better sense of community, which has probably lacked in the scene in the past," says Todd Boston of the band Maruma, a standout of the scene heavy on Eastern rhythms and groovy enough to play for the local deaf community. "They're attempting to put better shows together."