Back in the sixties James Brown invented a new
approach to soul music – at least for us white folks who had
trouble “feeling the funk.” Instead of traditional song
structures based around melodies and chord changes, he’d find
a steamy, funky groove. That’s it – just a groove, and
pretty much rap over it. About 2/3 of the way through the song you’d
get a chord change and another seriously funky-ass bassline punctuated
with tasty horn stabs for a few measures. These nuggets started off
being rarely more than 3½ minutes - just enough to get the
groove into your head and leave you wanting more – never fully
satisfied. In the seventies, the tunes started to stretch into the
seven minute range, leaving more room for Maceo Parker’s solos
and some extended vocal “exploration.”
At the same time, thousands of acid-dropping white people were finding
their groove in spacey, hour long “jams” by the likes
of the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and Santana. When Miles Davis hit
the Fillmore around 1969/70 there was a bit of crossover (though Miles
usually kept his back turned to the white audience), but the music,
while groove-oriented, still stuck to its spacey, psychedelic, 45
minute “jam” approach.
When the Dead had to finally disband (and yeah they’re back
together but they’re really not) a band called Phish picked
up a lot of the slack and officially started what was to become the
“jam band” genre. Phish had chops – and they knew
how to write a decent chord progression – as long as you could
deal with the extremely long solo sections and could get off on a
guitar starting a solo on a low octave and ending it on the highest
possible octave through a series of building, repetitive licks over
a period of 20 minutes - like – every song. But when you’re
really fucking high it’s admittedly great.
Back to James Brown. Sometime over the span of Phish’s career
a whole bunch of Phish bands started spawning. But to appeal to the
average college frat boy who probably wasn’t tripping face like
the psychedelic audiences of the past, they realized they had ease
up on the “spaciness” of the live shows. Find a groove
that can move even the most stoned white boy and just keep hitting
it home - kind of like techno but with real instruments and we hope,
soul. The answer? Take a James Brown groove, play it for a half hour,
and noodle over it. Or – find a 4 bar instrumental break from
your favorite Floyd tune – and play that for 45 minutes. Be
sure to add some interesting lighting for effect.
Let’s be clear here – jazz is based around a “groove”
and allows for long exploratory solos also. But this isn’t jazz.
James Brown, at least early on, understood that 3 minutes and 10 seconds
is really as long as these grooves needed to be before boredom –
or worse – irritation set in. The other difference was a big
one – James Brown’s players had SOUL. You could feel the
punch from the brass section. The bassline hit you HARD – and
it wasn’t digital – it sounded pretty fuckin’ raw.
But the jam band scene was growing – and it was turning out
to be quite profitable. So profitable that talented songwriters and
players whose forte has nothing to do with 45 minute exercises in
boredom like Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland got involved. I even
say Paul Shaeffer host "The Jammies" one year at - you guessed
it - Irving Plaza.
Which brings us to the actual show review. Buckethead opening for
a band called “Particle.” Particle? Playing Irving Plaza?
Who the hell are they? For those of you who might not know, Buckethead
is a shredding maniac of a guitar player who has worked with John
Zorn, Viggo Mortensen (yes, the Lord Of The Rings dude), Bootsy Collins
(damn it all goes back to JB, eh?), and Tony Williams. Oh –
and he’s also the guitarist for Guns n' Roses (or maybe not
any more – you never know about these things). His solo stuff
usually consists of fairly predictable riffs and progressions that
provide a vehicle for his insanely fast soloing. I find the solos
refreshing if only because they bring me back to metal’s pre-grunge
virtuoso guitarist days. But that’s a curmudgeonly story for
another time. Oh – and Buckethead wears a KFC bucket on his
I was curious to see what kind of backup band he would have. Unfortunately,
there was no backup band. Buckethead started out the set by playing
a preprogrammed conglomeration of about a dozen of his most memorable
beats and riffs. Then he proceeded to shred. After a few minutes of
this the backup beats (including bass and electronic accompaniment)
came one after another – a frenzy of prerecorded instrumentals
accompanied by a flurry of notes – sometimes with stage props
(he’d hold a fake talking head or a rubber chicken with one
hand while he played the guitar with the other.)
Every “song” stopped abruptly and Buckethead would then
immediately turn some knobs and start riffing on another groove. He
does have a mellow side, though, and I was waiting to hear something
from Colma, a collection of (surprise) minimalist instrumentals
that are more about soft atmospheric chords and less about sounding
like Paul Gilbert on crack. About halfway through the set he played
one. It was sloppy, he hit the wrong chord completely at one point,
and then he gave up, twisted some knobs, and went back to shred mode.
All in all, it was an interesting experience. I wanted to see him
rip it up live, and I did. But no band? Oh well.
Next up, Particle. The headlining “jam band.” I kind of
knew what was coming, just based on the crowd (think college frat
boy with the occasional white-boy dreadlocks here and there.)
Predictably, they started with a James Brown groove. But the keyboard
wasn’t an organ or wurly. It was kind of electro-sounding, which
gave the “groove” and even blander, more techno and less
And it went on
And it sucked.
At one point, Buckethead came back on stage and injected some energy
into the tired, predictable chords and tired, predictable solo noodling.
At least when you combine two styles of predictable noodling, things
can sound interesting, eh?
After 3 or 4 (or 5? I really couldn’t tell) “compositions”,
Particle launched into a pathetic version of a Floyd tune from Animals.
Great album. But what was the point?
That’s when I pushed through the throng of embarrassing dancing
zombies (hey I don’t dance for a reason – I look as idiotic
as these folks when I do) and got the fuck out of there.
Jam bands, which at first seemed to be a product of musical exploration
– a marriage of funk, jazz, and psychedelia, have become nothing
more that neatly packaged grooves - grooves that the great bands of
the past would relegate to a few measures or a coda as part of some
greater package – something we traditionally might call a "song".
James Brown did it to soul and he did it well. In today’s world
of short attention spans and quick fixes these bands today attract
legions of folks who don’t care to hear well-crafted songs or
soulful experimentation. They want a bar of something they can recognize.
Over and over and over again. They might as well go to a club and
listen to techno. Or, better yet, graduate to music that offers, as
Frank Zappa once said “good noodling.”
But shit – let me make a confession here. I used to be one of
them. I swear – it wasn’t me – it was the drugs!
Live and learn.
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