Alive with the Live: Phoenix Presents- Blueground Undergrass, Ulu, Jiggle the Handle, Soup, All Mighty Senators
By Benson Knickerbocker
The last quarter of 1999 seemed to be a magical time for "Jam Bands". On the Internet, web sites such as Jambands.com and Jambase.com have developed as major resources for fans. Over the course of the summer and fall months, jam band fans were treated to festivals such as Gathering of the Vibes and the Berkshire Music Festival. In addition, every band that comprised the "jam band" scene brought their stuff to local venues from coast to coast. Five such bands were Jiggle the Handle, Soup, Ulu, The Mighty Senators and Blueground Undergrass. Thanks to the folks at Phoenix Records, who have also brought us great new studio recordings by the Dude of Life, Ozric Tentacles, Foxtrot Zulu and The Big Wu, each of these five bands now boast an astonishingly well recorded live CD.
This is part of Phoenix Medias new "Phoenix Presents" series which is designed to make the sounds of hard touring bands available for listeners. This is not some company releasing poorly recorded bootlegs to the market for these five inaugural CDs were masterfully recorded and they possess a top-notch sound quality.
Beyond the realm of the recording quality, there is also the music itself. These five recordings refute a misconception about jam bands. To some, jam bands are considered a static entity in which their sound comprises of nothing but direction-less "noodling" playing long extended jams for the sake of it. This couldnt be further from the truth for the jam band scene had many sub-genres. There is Frank Zappa eclecticism (yeP!, Uncle Sammy, Phish). There is Grateful Dead inspired classic rock and roll (Stir Fried, Strangefolk). There are Miles Davis/Herbie Hancock jazz-rock-funk fusioneers (Fat Mama, Ulu, Miracle Orchestra). There is acid jazz funk (Wise Monkey Orchestra, Liquid Soul). There are the bluegrass/psychedelic breeds (Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident). There are all out funk bands (Deep Banana Blackout). There is New Orleans funk (Galactic, All That, Iris May Tango). There are experimental jazz-groove hybrids (Medeski, Martin & Wood, Zony Mash). There is Southern fried swamp rock (Widespread Panic, Day by the River). There is techno-rave inspired grooves(The New Deal, Sector 9). There are the world beat sounds (Baaba Seth, John Browns Body). There are man and woman armed simply with acoustic guitars (Keller Williams). There are whole armadas of horns, guitars, singers and keyboards (Viperhouse). Phoenix Presents has managed to take an accurate cross-section of the genre known as the jam band sound. On top of that, these release catch these bands in the live setting.
Jiggle the Handle ventures into blues-based psychedelic Latin rock and roll while Blueground Undergrass, led by Reverend Jeff Mosier, represents the combination of traditional bluegrass with jazz and psychedelic. As for Atlantas Soup, their release comprises two CDs worth of music taken from performances in Atlanta and New York City. Their swampy jam music takes a little of the characteristics of both Jiggle the Handle and Blueground Undergrass. Through the use of instruments such as accordions, harmonicas and fiddles, their music has a sense of tradition and heritage. On the flip side of the coin, the band also plugs in and pushes their music into epic psychedelic jams.
While these three bands examine jam bands who derive from more traditional music forms such as country, bluegrass and classic rock & roll, there is another whole jam band component that find their roots in funk -jazz. New York Citys Ulu played their Headhunters era funk-jazz at New York Citys Wetlands Preserve in November of 1999 . A month later, Baltimores All Might Senators got it down at Washingtons 9:30 Club and the recording Raw Power Live! is that shows brilliant offspring. While Ulu plays the groove-ridden instrumentals, the All Mighty Senators add Ska, hip-hop and George Clinton funk to their high-energy shows. Although covering opposite realms of the funk spectrum, both Ulu and the All Might Senators come together for the common goal of playing vibrant live sets.
These five bands are a must to see live in concert and these CDs serve as a perfect addendum to their live shows. Who needs low quality, hiss-filled, audience banter laden bootlegs when these professionally produced and affordably priced recordings are available to our ears? Just as the masterful Grateful Dead Dicks Picks series are eliminating my need to hang on to my old bootlegs, this Phoenix Presents series negates my need to collect inferior jam band bootleg recordings. (Keep in mind that the term "bootleg" is used loosely here as most jam bands allow taping and the word "bootleg" connotes an illegal recording.) Regardless of the bands taping policy and the proliferation of advanced taping technology, poor recordings still manage to exist. Add to the fact that if you are not a bootleg trader yourself, it is hard to gain access bootlegs. The tapers circle is a tough group to penetrate - especially if the last time you actively participated in bootleg trading was when you recorded the Grateful Deads 1985 show at Hershey Park for a friend.
Even more important than allowing widespread access to live recordings, the Phoenix Presents initiative really succeeds in capturing what jam bands do best playing live. Although the studio releases by Ulu, Jiggle the Handle and Blueground Undergrass are sonically appealing albums, their Phoenix releases bring out the bands true essence. No dubs, edits and multi-tracks just raw, unbridled verve and dynamism. The logo for Phoenix Presents is "Save the World From Mediocre Music" I think they are doing a good job so far. To find out more about the "Phoenix Presents" series, check out www.radiophoenix.com. To check out any of these bands, go to http://www.jigglethehandle.com/, http://www.soupkitchen.com; www.allmightysenators.com; www.ulu.net and bluegroundundergrass.com/.