Win, Lose or Jam
"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."
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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."
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.
"We actually do punch a clock, in a way," says guitarist Ghazi Al-Mulaifi, whose Tempe home has become the practice and work space for the band. "We work Monday through Friday here, from 10 to 5."
"But it's a job we all want to come to," adds keyboardist Jeff Bujak, with a big grin. "I wake up in the morning now, and I can't wait to get to work."
"This has been our goal for a very long time," explains singer Christine Devlin, who, along with guitarist Justin Eck, recently quit her job as a teacher at a charter school to work full-time for the band. "We all had day jobs up until the tour we did this past summer," adds Eck. "We had a lot of dates lined up in the East and Midwest, and we all decided we'd be better off if we quit our jobs to devote all our time to the band."
"We've all given up a lot to start this company," stresses Al-Mulaifi, who himself is embroiled in a divorce over band commitment issues. "It's not like we were without options. Some of us gave up some good-paying jobs, and very comfortable, safe lives to do this. Because we all believe in it so much."
While working at their own little Jams R Us may be a far cry from the average office job, Al-Mulaifi insists he hasn't turned his home into a hippie crash pad.
"The biggest misconception some people have is that it's very la-de-da here," he says. "They think we're all just hanging around the house all day partying. But we actually all have our roles, just like an ordinary company. Justin and I are in charge of booking, both locally and around the country. Jeff is in charge of the Web site. Cubby [Hall, the percussionist] is our art director, he helps design the album covers. Brian [Headlee, on drums] is our numbers guy, he does the accounting. And Christine's in charge of our merchandise; she sets up the tables with our CDs and tee shirts and local artists' jewelry and stuff. So every morning after our meeting, we all go off and work on our particular jobs."
There's also time set aside almost every day for practicing, which the six do -- at full concert volume -- in the cramped recording studio Al-Mulaifi has set up in his living room, right by the front door. It's a sound that can be heard from far down the street in Al-Mulaifi's quiet Tempe neighborhood.
"We try to practice during the day, when most people in the neighborhood are away at work," says Devlin. "But those who are around never seem to complain."
"It's because they like the music," says Hall -- at 35, the oldest of the group. "It's not like we're that stupid metal band down the street.' We're playing a kind of music older people like."
To be sure, Somebody's Closet's sound is an updated mixture of musical styles most middle-aged homeowners grew up tripping to. At times, the blend of male and female voices in the band recalls early Jefferson Airplane, Renaissance, or It's a Beautiful Day.
"Our parents love our band," muses the 24-year-old Bujak. "My mom is an old hippie from the '60s, and I've never seen her dance before. But we were playing in Syracuse, where I'm from, and she was out on the floor -- with my grandmother, too! And I'm like, Whoa. This is weird!' But I like it. Because I've been in hard-core metal bands, with names like Hellacious Muffin, and I was actually embarrassed that she saw me in those. Now I'm playing the kind of music she grew up on."
After grooving out to the Lymbyc Systym's minimalist jazz and Somebody's Closet's communal peacenik vibe, it's a little jarring for the Sail Inn faithful when the six members of Baraka launch into their set fronted by a tag team of black rappers who attempt to bring a hip-hop element into the mix -- aggressive four-letter words, freestyle macking and all. While Baraka's songs are still on the positive tip, just the mere touch of anything angry-sounding doesn't quite mix with the incense and flowery skirts.
"Anger doesn't really fit into the vibe," acknowledges promoter Hanley, who likes it better when Baraka gets into an extended funk groove toward the end of the night. "If you look at the big bands on the scene -- Phish, Widespread Panic, String Cheese -- a lot of their songs tend to be positive and kind of whimsical. Overall, you're not gonna get the same type of negative energy that you get at, say, a death-metal show. It just doesn't fit."
Getting "the vibe" right is a major element in a jam band's success. "We may not have the improv skills down yet," admits Andy Hobbs of Good People, a not-good-enough band eliminated earlier in the competition. "But we definitely have the vibe. It's that feeling that everybody's accepted. You can do no wrong here."
In the end, it's the Lymbyc Systym's brother duo of Michael and Jared Bell who take the title -- possibly more for their true-brother tightness than for their performance, which, when compared to the larger ensembles that followed, provided little spectacle. Most of the fans at the Sail Inn cite the Bell brothers' almost telepathic timing behind their improvisational tightrope walk, a sixth sense that can only come from playing in the same room for so many years (drummer Michael and keyboardist Jared started playing on toy instruments together when they were only 10 and 7, respectively). Some in the audience mention that they liked it when Michael dedicated the last song, the prettiest, to their dad, who had driven down from Flagstaff to see his sons play.
Not surprisingly, the members of Somebody's Closet and Baraka are good sports about the outcome. "Lymbyc Systym is so cool," says Christine Devlin, who insists her bandmates are okay with just having played to such a relatively large crowd. "Hey, we got to play outside for a lot of cool people, so whatever!" she says, smiling.
"I love playing with other bands that are good," adds Jeff Bujak. "I just enjoyed the night, hanging out with good musicians."
Arguably, the whole idea of a battle of the bands runs counter to the communal feeling people come to a jam-band show to experience, anyway.
"There is that element of irony there," agrees Hanley. "But the cool thing is, a lot of the nine bands who participated in this will end up opening shows for each other or jamming together later on. They become friends."
Dan Biederman, who's already made some good contacts since finishing short in the second night's competition, agrees.
"Competition is kind of contrary to the vibe," he says. "But hey, we played for 150 new people.
"That's awesome, dude!"
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