Cicero's champs brace for the second coming of Vermont's phinest. Prince disciples couldn't care less.

Nov 20, 2002 at 4:00 am
It's all Phish's fault, really. The grandpappies of the jam circuit's (R.I.P., Jerry G.) first album, Junta, was a lyrical conundrum of Trenchcoat Mafia jerkwad mythology that barely passed the giggle test. Most of us read about Narnia in grade school; we don't need to hear the musical version of what ended up on C.S. Lewis' cutting-room floor.

But fuckin' A, boy, could they blaze them riffs live. Indeed, no jam band -- outside of maybe the Grateful Dead in their heyday -- has ever held a candle to Phish in terms of sheer musical talent. But where the Dead had Robert Hunter and his Americana-drenched lyrics of the lonely river, Phish slacks at the notepad and pumps out "Fluffhead" and "Fee." At any rate, it's never been about the lyrics for Vermont's finest, or for any neo-jam band, for that matter.

"I've seen about 30-plus Phish shows, and every one amazes me," gushes 25-year-old percussionist Ryan Wilhite, whose group, the Station, won Cicero's annual Battle of the Bands on Halloween night. "They impress me with their fanbase, as well as their musicianship. Widespread [Panic] and String Cheese Incident, they're great bands, but they're not just holding their fanbase as well as Phish."

Incidentally, the Station played with Phish drummer Jon Fishman's Jazz Mandolin Project at the Black River Music Fest this summer, which, to them, signals that the Midwest jam-band scene is on the way up. "If we keep on putting out bands like [last year's Battle champions] Bockman's Euphio [from Columbia, Missouri] and Speakeasy [of Springfield, Missouri], the scene will take off," says Wilhite.

Hold on. Where on God's green earth does the name Bockman's Euphio come from? If there's one thing the jammers do, it's get too cute with their wordplay. To wit, the Station's self-described style of music is "blues-infused, psychedelic, funkaholic, jazzophonic delight."

Come again? Just play, fellas, and let the pundits do the pigeonholing.

Goofy labels aside, the Station -- which has gotten a smattering of airplay on KDHX-FM's Stumble in the Dark -- is a fine up-and-coming jam band, if said genre gets you off. Still, the group is barely distinguishable from Thos, the runner-up at Cicero's battle royal.

Indistinguishable, that is, until they busted into a cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back." This entertaining wrinkle in the jam-band boilerplate began when Texas-based honky-tonkers the Gourds recorded a bluegrass version of Snoop Dogg's "Gin & Juice" a few years back. The cover became an underground smash and compelled a multitude of jam bands to begin covering rap songs. For its part, Phish preferred to whip out Tupac and Dre's "California Love" in concert.

"Covering rap songs became a real popular thing to do," Wilhite explains. "We also do Eazy-E's 'Gimme That Nut.' It's a break from our material -- excites the crowd and ourselves."

Finishing a distant third at Cicero's was Vibe Trybe, a batshit convolution of R&B, funk and heavy-metal veterans from all corners of the St. Louis music scene. But that they made it that far was accomplishment enough in a competition that is usually dominated by stanky underarms and endless riffs.

"Vibe Trybe being there was a real big surprise," Wilhite admits. "When they kicked it up, the R&B was the last thing I expected to hear. I thought those guys were excellent musicians; it's just not my kind of music."

Thirty-year-old Vibe Trybe frontman Brian Smith is a ringer for Prince. On an unseasonably sunny November afternoon outside Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar, he's living up to his reputation as an incessant girl-watcher -- something that dreadlocked keyboardist Kent Jones doesn't hesitate to remind him of. "Man, there you go again," Jones snorts, causing Smith to blush knowingly.

Smith describes Vibe Trybe as "trip-soul" -- a self-designed moniker that's only slightly less annoying than the Station's. But Vibe Trybe, a splashy sextet that sounds like a cross between the New Power Generation and Ready for the World, is just about quirky enough to deserve one of those weird-ass cross-pollinated brand names. Smith and a couple of Trybe members used to play in a cover band called Mind Over Soul. Sick of puttin' on the hits, they slowly began assembling a genre-bending collection of artists who would "fit, but fit jaggedly," as Smith puts it.

Vibe Trybe made Cicero's jam-centric finale on the strength of a swelling cadre of loyal followers that has essentially doubled with every gig, an essential ingredient for success in the prelims at Cicero's, where the winner of each round leading up to the finals was determined solely by audience voting.

"You got a ballot with your $5 admission," Wilhite explains. "A really crappy band could have won, had they brought enough people."

Vibe Trybe wasn't crappy. They were just too different to win, which isn't much of a surprise to Smith. "I wouldn't say we appeal to the jam-band crowd," Smith concedes. "But nowadays, you can listen to 105.7 [The Point] and hear Eminem. A long time ago, music was segregated. I think we cross over well."

Although they express polite appreciation for the musicianship of the likes of the Station and Thos, Smith and Jones are half hoping that the lively St. Louis freeform scene doesn't get too big for its britches. "If it gets too big, people will miss that next level," Jones says. "You kind of want to take it further than the jam band."

Jones, who is black, is even finding that some of his diehard hip-hop homeys are warming up to the Trybe's impossible-to-classify vibe. "I'm finding that they're becoming more open-minded," says Smith. "They're appreciating the fact that we aren't doing what people expect us to do."

As for the jam scene, the boys from Burlington are due to reunite in January for what smart money says will be a full-blown tour. Phish's hiatus, says Wilhite, has been a double-edged sword, allowing some lesser-known acts to emerge from the band's long, dark shadow -- but leaving the scene's traveling tricksters without a powerhouse fulcrum to hang their hackysacks on.

"If anybody was gonna hit it huge after the Dead's demise, it was gonna be Phish," Wilhite says. "They're getting ready to fire up touring again -- we'll see what happens to Widespread and String Cheese."