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"What Would Jerry Do?"
The bumper sticker on the old Toyota Celica, parked outside the Sail Inn, the friendly little Tempe bar that's quietly become a haven for the local jam-band scene, can't say it any better. If there's a guiding principle behind the Saturday night event, the finals in a nine-band, four-week "Battle of the Jams" competition aimed at crowning the best jam band in the Valley, it's precisely that: How would the patron saint of the never-ending, all-seeking solo handle all the tie-dyed Deadhead descendants who've come tonight for a contact buzz of peace, love and trippy music?
"I think every jam band out there, from Phish to String Cheese Incident to all the bands playing here tonight, is going after a slice of the audience culture the Grateful Dead created," says Dan Biederman of Tempe's Bad Shoe, an earlier competitor in the tournament. "I mean, these people existed -- if the Dead didn't bring them out, somebody else would have. But the Grateful Dead assembled around them a culture of music fans who appreciated more than the music. It's the idea of embracing individuality and creativity and trying something different. That's why you have people here who make their own clothes and things like that. They're looking for freedom and expression not only in their music, but also in their lives."
Certainly, that Deadhead culture is in full effect at the Sail Inn. Around the spacious outdoor stage behind the bar where the first band, Lymbyc Systym, is busily setting up their equipment, a colorful assortment of free spirits stroll about in flowing madras shirts, highlight-streaked dreadlocks and multicolored hand-knitted caps. In the "Grassy Knoll" area set up in the kitty-corner to the stage, vendors selling everything from VW bus-size tie-dye blankets to energy supplements to bumper stickers for an organization called Food Not Bombs create a kind of mini-Woodstock yard sale.
Around the corner from them, in a little grass area shielded from the street lights, nervous circles of friends pass around glowing ceramic pipes between flashes from the headlights of the cars pulling into the overflowing parking lot.
"Sure, there's always that undercurrent of the stoner hippie at jam-band events," admits Mike Hanley, the 24-year-old booking agent who runs Intelligroove, the Sedona jam band promotional company that's sponsoring the monthlong tournament, the second such event to be held this year at the Sail Inn. "But if you look around at the crowd, we're actually a pretty mixed bag. There's probably more vegetarians and liberal-minded people in our scene than in some others. And yeah, some of 'em got the VW bus and the long hair and the dreadlocks. But then there's guys like me, who's got short blond hair and drives a Honda Accord! Jam-band fans are really all over the map."
That also goes for the bands themselves, whose styles range from Americana roots to psychedelic experimentation to jazz-inflected reggae.
Says Biederman, whose band was eliminated on the second night of the competition: "You've got Lymbyc Systym, who are just two brothers -- a keyboard player and a drummer -- no singing, all instrumental. But they're extremely tight, because they've been playing together all their lives. Then you've got Somebody's Closet, who've got that late '60s vibe, where you'd go watch a band and there'd be, like, a million people onstage. They just look diverse: They've got a kid with an acoustic guitar, a Middle Eastern-looking dude on lead, a beautiful girl off to stage right playing congas and singing; there's percussionists, drums. And then the third band is Baraka, who kind of combine hip-hop with old-school tribal rock."
Of the three bands competing in tonight's finals, Biederman has his money resting on Somebody's Closet, the six-piece rhythm and vocal harmony ensemble that beat Bad Shoe and another band, Good People, to make it into the $2,000 playoffs.
"They are probably the most professional," he admits. "They've got their own studio, and they've got a three-month national tour already booked up for the beginning of next year."
Somebody's Closet also has something every jam band wishes they had: full-time jobs as musicians, and a "band house" where they all get to hang out every day, making music, breathing incense and living a life free from the 9-to-5 grind that can sometimes deaden the blissful vibe necessary in any type of jam-band music.
"Of all the bands in the local jam-band scene, they're the closest to the dream right now," says an enviable Biederman, who still supplements his musical income with a part-time job at America West. "They're the ones really living the life."
It's 10 a.m. on a Thursday, two days before the Battle of the Jams finals, and the staff of Somebody's Closet, LLC, are sitting down for their daily morning meeting.
As at any business conference taking place this same moment in offices all around the city, the table is crowded with coffee cups, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and print-outs of busy schedules and plans. But this conference table also happens to be right by the pool outside the band leader's home, constantly circled by large, friendly dogs, and the designated accountant of the newly formed limited liability company is busy rolling a handmade cigarette from a bag of curious-looking tobacco.