A funny thing happened to me as I watched the new Wilco concert DVD, Ashes of American Flags: I was forced to admit, without hesitation, that my favorite band is, in fact, a jam band.
Yes, a jam band. Wilco are the kind of band that sees their shows taped and traded by bearded men whose clothing seems to come exclusively from the REI catalog, men who nod their heads along to super-extended guitar solos, while adhering to the puff-puff-pass rule as rigidly as Young Buck.
I didn't sign up for this. When I started listening to the Chicago-based band made up of singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stiratt, and a revolving cast of increasingly proficient musicians Wilco were an alt-country act, recording twangy three-minute pop songs. They evolved — first synth-poppy (Summerteeth), then spacey (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) — but have now entered the full-on, soft-rocking jam territory of American Beauty-era Grateful Dead. Yet I still love them.
My favorite band is a jam band. I hate jam bands. What's going on here?
I guess that's not a big deal to most, but as someone who spent his college years at a big school in the Midwest, making a point of not listening to the String Cheese Incident/O.A.R. shit blaring from the houses on his small-but-proud frat row, it's quite a revelation.
Why didn't I listen to that stuff? It's kinda fun. I like hacky sack. I like Corona. I enjoy sitting on a blanket on an amphitheater lawn.
I attended last Wednesday's Dave Matthews Band concert at Cricket Wireless Pavilion only to confront the fact that, aside from the douchiness of the crowd, it wasn't all that different from what Wilco shows have become. Wilco are a country-rock band with long, jazz-inspired, improvisational piano and guitar solos. DMB are a folk-rock band with long, jazz-inspired, improvisational violin and saxophone solos. Honestly, we could compare snippets from the middle of either band's "jams" and they would be indistinguishable from the other band's jams — even to die-hards. Even to me.
One of the two bands is beloved by every critic type I know; the other is roundly despised by tastemakers and routinely made the butt of jokes by self-proclaimed sophisticates. What gives?
Well, aside from the small instrumental differences — and the fact that one band makes mind-blowing albums while the other writes a lot of pretty shoddy songs — there's only one thing I can come up with: Dave Matthews is fun.
Not for me, mind you. I can't get past the crowd at the DMB show. Even before I'd walked through the gate, I saw a gray-haired man in a backwards Callaway Golf hat playing quarters with his Panama-hatted friend, using nickels and a foam cup. But for the vast majority of the middle-management types at the show, it was a chance to kick back on a weekday evening. Drink a few beers, maybe smoke a joint. Chillax, as the kids say.
The scenario, for many people I associate with, would be a nightmare. Because many of the people I associate with are hipsters. And, as it turns out, hipsters hate fun.
By "hipsters" I don't mean 14-year-olds skinny jeans, I mean 20-something vinyl collectors in chunky glasses and Chuck Taylors. Think Yo La Tengo fan, not MGMT fan.
Unless it's an exercise in irony, you will not find any Chuck Taylor-wearers at this week's Jimmy Buffett concert (also at Cricket Pavilion) or next month's Roger Clyne/Circus Mexicus extravaganza in Puerto Peñasco — not because they don't like music similar to Buffett's or Clyne's, but because they hate music that tends to be associated with the sort of shenanigans they'd rather not be involved with. And those shenanigans — drinking, smoking, singing along, dancing, wearing funny fats — are, by and large, thoroughly fun, even in un-ironic ways.
Just try to get your hipster friends to an amphitheater concert that'll involve people dancing barefoot in the grass or half the crowd wearing floral print shirts. Won't happen. (Though I seriously doubt any person of actual taste would regard Buffett's gloomy alcoholic's lament, "Margaritaville," as anything other than brilliant.) And, certainly, hipster-friendly acts like Ryan Adams and Old 97's enter the same territory musically, while Vampire Weekend writes songs about the minutiae of life in a beach town. Toss a steel drum in VW's "Walcott" and see if Buffett can't cover it convincingly.
For some reason, the music most associated with relaxed good times is the music most unpalatable to hipsters. Thematically, the songs of Dave Matthew and Jimmy Buffett differ little from those in a hipster's usual musical diet, so it must be the atmosphere of those artists' concerts that is the hipster's real problem with them.
The issue, I've come to realize, is that people approach a concert in one of two mutually exclusive and incompatible ways: They go to have fun, or they go to analyze.
But for a hipster, the analysis of the show — probably how much they just fucking love it (though sometimes not) — is a big part of the draw. When you're critiquing something, it's a lot easier to talk about something new and/or not widely known than it is to talk about an artist like Matthews — as I learned when I sat down to write my review. So, that's part of it. Yes, a hipster also is interested in exclusivity, being part of a cabal of cool that's known or understood by mainstream audiences. (If you've ever heard a hipster say he liked a band better before it "got big," you've seen this dynamic at work.)
To take the point further, I think a hipster is interested in associating himself with something one can't judge solely on the basis of its entertainment value, a notion that is contrary to a hipster's aesthetic.
At most of the hipster-friendly shows I attend, I don't see anyone having "fun" in the traditional sense. Mostly, I see serious faces, the occasional smile, the nodding of a few heads. Not once have I seen anyone "rock out" — at least not like I did at DMB's show, where a group of joyful dancers formed spontaneously in the aisles, scattering only when security waved flashlights at them.
Take those joyful dancers to the other show I saw last week, banjo-playing bluesman William Elliot Whitmore's brilliant performance at Chyro Arts, and they're likely to be under-whelmed — not because they lack the capacity to appreciate the music but because they won't experience all the "fun" they're used to: tailgating, dancing, jamming.
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The fans I met at the Dave Matthews show couldn't give a shit about the critical stuff, supremely confident that fun would conquer all. Talking to the die-hards tailgating in the parking lot of Cricket, I sensed no pretension, even as I expressed my distaste for Dave Matthews.
"Do you like to get drunk, smoke weed and have fun?" a 27-year-old Chandler man asked. "Then you'll like this show."
He was wrong, of course, but that was my issue, not his. He made the mistake of thinking I was at the show to have fun. I wasn't. Not this time, anyway. But, as Wilco has shown me, having my favorite three-minute songs transformed into seven-minute jams ain't so bad. Actually, it's pretty fun.
Now, if I can just find a few DMB songs I like.