JAM-PACKED

Cicero's revives flagging attendance with the introduction of a jam-band format

"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."

Cicero's Chad Jacobs: "We didn't have any idea how many people would show up. Then, boom ó 300 people were here."

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.

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