It's Saturday night, and Cicero's is packed. There are some bearded hippies in rasta tams, as well as a few nervous, scrubbed preplike individuals, but most of the mass falls between these two poles mild collegiate rebels enjoying themselves. The beer is flowing freely, but there's a little less cigarette smoke in the air than you might expect.
Big Bang Theory is onstage, in front of a tie-dyed backdrop. They bounce through a few bars of a Dead-style ragtime-rock thing. An earnest, blond, bespectacled John Sebastian-type is their frontman; he sings a brief verse that includes phrases like "going back to St. Louie." Verbal content out of the way, he leads the band through an excruciatingly thorough examination of this particular groove and all its implications, but it's unclear whether Big Bang Theory possesses the necessary chops to extend the adventure beyond five minutes or so. The number chugs to an uneventful close, and the next starts off with a funky bit that recalls the opening theme from Night Court. Any suggestion of the music's triviality or pretension would be lost on the assembled throng, who appear to be having the Saturday night they've always dreamed of.
Why do so many people loathe jam bands with such intensity? The rock literati treat this music with the same withering contempt that their fathers reserve for gangsta rap. For many of the young and hip, there is simply no hope of redemption for jam bands. A certain amount of scorn for jam-band music and its listeners is de rigueur for thrash brats and art-party technoids alike. Those who don't make fun of jam-band music are busy ignoring it. It is the Rock That Dare Not Speak Its Name.
There may be a joke in here somewhere, but at whose expense? In a town where even the best, most innovative rock bands struggle with mass apathy, hundreds of people cram into Cicero's every weekend for the long, improvised jam-band ritual. Thanks to them, the venue is back in the black after many quiet, empty months. Who are these people, and why do they go to Cicero's rather than someplace else?
Chad Jacobs is a good man to ask. He's the booking and promotions manager for Cicero's, and he was one of the first people in town to start bringing these bands here. He looks like some kind of genius now, but Jacobs will be the first to tell you that there was no master plan.
"Originally, it was accidental," Jacobs says. "For sure." Though Jacobs had been into the bigger names like Phish and the Grateful Dead for some time, it was in February that he learned of the thriving grassroots network of jam bands across the continent. Desperately seeking some viable alternative to the jazz/blues mishmash that was steadily erasing Cicero's from the city's collective psyche, he noticed that Keller Williams was going on tour with his band.
"It was really a crapshoot from the start," Jacobs says. "We didn't have any idea how many people would show up. Then, boom 300 people were here." And this on a weeknight in February. Jacobs and his assistant, Curt Alsobrook, knew they had found something good, both for the club and for themselves and their jam-loving friends.
The medium for his discovery was the Internet. JamBands.com is an online magazine published by one Dean Budnick, who writes much but not most of its content. It's filled with reviews and columns, and it does a decent job of covering bands of all levels of notoriety, even if articles like "Prog Rock: A Secret Influence on the Jamband Scene" aren't going to do much to win new friends. Another important Web site is homegrownmusic.com. Where JamBands.com is news- and review-oriented, the "Homegrown" site is more about networking, providing a one-stop source for recordings, merchandise and booking info.
So far, so good, right? Two guys take a chance booking the music they like and tap into a national network of like-minded people. They manage to rescue a dying venue while providing multitudes with a decent night out. So why has the condescension only intensified? As you might imagine, Jacobs and Alsobrook have some ideas on the subject.
"I was into the punk thing for so long," Alsobrook says. "I blatantly hated the Grateful Dead for absolutely no reason before I'd ever even heard a song. It was an image thing."
"A lot of people think every jam band is a Grateful Dead cover band," Jacobs says. "People associate all jam bands with the Grateful Dead. And their only association with the Grateful Dead is hippies, and their only association with hippies is drugs." Jacobs believes that the jam-band scene is unfairly singled out as more drug-addled than others.
"Yeah, a lot of people in the scene smoke pot," Jacobs says. "Oh well. A lot of people in every scene smoke pot, or drink until their liver falls out."
Alsobrook thinks that the scene's detractors don't get the point of the music. To him, it's not a question of musical style so much as it is one of upholding the improvisational ethic. He accepts that the mainstream will never welcome his favorite bands ("I think that the general public doesn't want to hear intelligent music") but is less charitable toward those who, in his view, should know better.
"It's just improvisational music, and it goes back as far as we can remember," he says. "It definitely includes Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt. If this music was part of another scene, a lot of people would be bowing down with respect for these musicians. But you throw 'hippie' into it and it's over." This aversion to the woolly early-'70s aesthetic may account for the relative invisibility of jam bands in the hip media. "A lot of the writers are big on free jazz and avant-garde jazz," he says. "This is the same thing. Bluegrass might be thrown in with it, rock might be thrown in with it, whatever it might be, but it's the same concept. The songs don't have really set, strict boundaries."
So, then, who are the people who come to see these shows? Alsobrook estimates that some 75 percent of the fans are musicians themselves. "They're up here really picking apart these bands," he says. A look around during the finale of the recent "Battle of the Jambands" would seem to contradict this, although nobody can say for sure. The claims of the scene's proponents that it is a culturally diverse one also regrettably fail to correspond with reality on this particular night, with the crowd heavily white, young and middle-class, not too dissimilar from a typical show at the old Cicero's. Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily, but when a jam-band enthusiast conjures utopian images of blissed-out harmony, take it with a grain of salt.
As the crowds grew and more and more of the Cicero's calendar was taken up by jam bands, other clubs started sniffing around for cash. Jacobs believes that his own enthusiasm for the music and affinity with the fans makes the difference. "The one thing about this scene," Jacobs says, "is that if people decide they don't like your place, that's it. They leave. You can't have a lot of the craziness you get at other kinds of shows. If the bouncers get out of hand or whatever, it's over."
The club puts on very few non-jam-band shows now, and there are no plans to reverse the trend. Like it or not, this is what Cicero's does now. This is what Cicero's is, and anyone pining for the old days will have to get over it. Big Bang Theory have wrapped it up, and as they unplug guitars and break down drum hardware, some joker steps up to a mike with a trumpet. In shaky low notes, he plays "Taps." It's meant as a good-natured gesture by a fan, a jokey way to lament the end of the band's set. But anyone with fond memories of the nervy, aggressively indie haven that was the old Cicero's finds the tune mournful in a completely different way. The jam bands aren't going anywhere. You might give them a try and be pleasantly surprised, or you might ignore them completely, but you're going to have to find a way to live with them.