Noodle Jam

Dispatches from the Battle of the St. Louis Jam Bands

Truth be told, the prospect of an entire evening of jam bands didn't sit well with me. But the event, Cicero's "Battle of the St. Louis Jam Bands" finals, offered a simple opportunity for a one-stop catch-all glimpse into the murky waters of the city's jam-band scene, a scene that the closed-minded punk in me had guffawed at and dismissed without ever intentionally hearing (I did have a harrowing experience last year, when stumbling in on the Kind left me gasping for air and truckin' it to the door).

However, though admittedly filled with dread, I also understood that (a) one bad experience with one band isn't a fair indicator of a scene at large; (b) the jam-band scene is, as mentioned above, casually dismissed by lugheads like myself because of the scene's freakish fondness for all things Dead-related — specifically those excruciating, endless guitar solos — often without giving the music a fair shake; and (c) the Dead played several different styles of music, and one or two of them occasionally ended up in the realm of the truly inspired, and to assume that the scene existed solely in the area of their repertoire that, well, sucked, is, well, ignorant and unfair.

Cicero's was packed — it was tough to squeeze through, let alone wag your arms and bend your knees along to the noodling — and Big Bang Theory was just starting (Headstash had just finished playing) as I entered.

As Big Bang Theory began, all my negative assumptions were confirmed as the band — drummer, two guitarists and bassist — did exactly what I had feared. They discovered a boring groove and proceeded to examine it nonstop: beginning solo, followed by secondary commentary on beginning solo, followed by bassist's response to first and second solos, followed by first guitarist's extended, crescendo-filled examination of the subtleties of the bassist's response to solos 1 and 2, followed by a quiet, somber numbing-down of overall impact, followed by frenzied spate of solos, all ending with, yes, a solo. Not only did the song not go anywhere, but like a car stuck in the mud while the driver floors the accelerator, it actually dug itself so deeply into the muck that I feared for the band's safety. And that was only the first song.

Three more hours to go. Three more hours to go. Anybody got any pot?

The second and third songs were no better. But then something happened as the band loosened — something surprising (if the band was noodling before they were warm, I feared, think how ridiculous it'll be after they're loose): They discovered a melody; they all hooked into the same idea at the same time; they ditched the blathering solos — at least for a moment; and they sounded like, well, their own band. They sounded not like a "jam band" inspired by all things hippy but like Big Bang Theory, a band with original ideas, a great couple of running, directional songs and a resultant momentum. They sounded interesting (?!), at least for a couple of cuts. They did, however, relapse every now and then, much to my disappointment. I was, however, alone in this tedium; the packed house was going crazy.

After a brief respite from the claustrophobia, the final band, Static Circus took the stage: drums, bongos, organ, guitar, bass, trumpet. From the first introduction to the first song, I knew I had met my match: Here was a band that jammed — not as in "Dude, you can jam" but as in "It's Friday night; we're a bunch of musicians who are interesting in jamming together, interested in discovering a voice and feeding an impulse." The result was fantastic, loose, never noodly, always curious. They too, found a groove, but it was a percussive groove, a bed on which the soloists lay. They found, in essence, the interesting world of the Dead, the one that touched on free jazz and Miles Davis' early-'70s work, best illustrated by John Oswald's glorious Grateful Dead examination Grayfolded. It was endlessly interesting and inspired, and it taught me a valuable lesson that I'll forget soon enough.

And — glory! glory! — Static Circus won the Battle of the Jam Bands, a testament to both the good taste of the judges and the high expectations of the audience, an audience that couldn't care less what some closed-minded punk has to say about their beloved bands. Did I tell you Cicero's was packed?

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