We Be Jammin’: Reggae and Jam Bands Collide
- By Marc Shapiro
- Published on January 26, 2012
|Drummie Zeb and Aston Barrett at the State Theatre in Virginia on Dec. 29, 2011 - Photo Credit: Marc Shapiro|
The diverse jam band/electronica scene is united by its organic feel, whether it’s an electronic-heavy band like Lotus or an acoustic group like Yonder Mountain String Band, songs become foundations for natural, free-flowing improvisation.
While bands considered jam bands draw on a diverse number of influences, it’s this natural feel that some say bridges the gap between them and reggae acts.
“I can say all the jam band heads gravitate towards the reggae because it’s also free and expressive and alive and real organic,” said Ernest “Drummie Zeb” Williams, a longtime reggae drummer currently on the road with The Wailers. “I can see the way the music has similar swells, and there’s a real freedom to it and a real open, natural vibe.”
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The Wailers, who backed Bob Marley throughout his career, have shared the stage with moe., String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Widespread Panic. For Williams, the crossover makes a lot of sense.
“I think it’s just a peace and love sound,” he said.
But it’s much more than a vibe that the reggae and jam scenes share. A deeper look at the music shows that both have deep histories, share similar ideals and have penetrated popular music in more ways than one.
From Jamaica to San Francisco
Reggae was born in Jamaica, with its lyrical themes capturing the realities of the island’s oppressive ghettos, black consciousness, messages of equality and Rastafarian ideals. The sound was another step in the evolution of ska and rocksteady, characterized by offbeat emphasis, percussive guitar, one-drop drumming, melodic walking bass and vocal and musical call and response.
The jam scene’s seeds were planted in San Francisco by the quintessential improvisational band, The Grateful Dead. While it was a drastically different economic and political situation, the community the band and its followers created was one of a collective consciousness and communal living, not unlike the Rastafarian community in Jamaica.
These musical communities developed almost simultaneously, with Bob Marley and The Wailers forming in 1963 and The Grateful Dead forming in 1965.
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While the Grateful Dead was playing at acid tests in California, Rastafarians in Jamaica were engaging in their own communal rituals. Two mainstays of Rasta gatherings include marijuana smoking, which Rastas consider an aid to meditation and a sacrament, and Niyabinghi drumming, which was seminal in rocksteady and reggae drums.
Fast-forward to the present day, and it’s hard to ignore the parallels between a Rasta gathering and the ganja-inspired drum circles pervasive at music festivals.
Through versatility and constant reinvention, reggae groups and jam bands have remained relevant since their inceptions.
The untrained musical ear might not know, but the major label debut by Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1973’s “Catch A Fire,” was enhanced to reach American rock fans, its producer said.
“This record had the most overdubs on it,” Chris Blackwell, the found of Island Records and producer of “Catch A Fire,” said in a documentary about the album. “This record was the most . . . enhanced to try to reach a rock market because this was the first record and [Bob Marley and The Wailers] wanted to reach into that market.”
|Drummie Zeb Closing Out All Good 2006 With The Wailers - Photo Credit: Marc Shapiro|
“We needed to add a little bit of something Americans were used to, like clavinets and things. So, Bob was ready for that,” John “Rabbit” Bundrick said in the same documentary. Bundrick overdubbed the keys.
And much like “Catch A Fire” had purist reggae being mixed with American rock influences, the two most well known jam bands of our time, The Grateful and Phish, incorporated reggae into their diverse catalogs with songs like “Crazy Fingers” and “Guelah Papyrus,” respectively.
Over time, both reggae and jam music continue to surface in popular music. Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974 brought reggae further into the international spotlight.
In the late 70s and early 80s, British bands like The Police and The Clash combined reggae with punk and rock influences. Sublime brought reggae, ska and punk together again in the 90s. Echoes of reggae can be heard all over the musical spectrum, from the hip-hop oriented dancehall style to heavier rock bands like System of a Down.
The Grateful Dead and their legacy undoubtedly penetrated popular culture as well. As more bands adopted The Grateful Dead’s multi-genre, improvisational approach to music, a plethora of music festivals catering to that music have popped up all over the U.S. These days, improvisation can be found across all musical spectrums, from the live shows of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the guitar playing in Ozzy Osbourne’s band.
|Photo Credit: Marc Shapiro|
“The festivals really do it for you because you might have a jam band festival, and there might Toots and The Maytals playing and then the next act will be G. Love,” he said. “It kind of makes it like it’s all one thing in a good way.”
Marley Williams, bassist for eclectic reggae band Rebelution, says his band shares a lot with the jam band world. One reason he thinks his band has been invited to festivals like All Good and Wakarusa with jam bands is the ever-so-popular “face melter.”
“[Reggae is] a comforting kind of sound and it can go anywhere if you put guitar solos in and stuff like we do,” the bassist, who is named after Bob Marley, said. “Eric [Rachmany] does a lot of guitar soloing. It kind of crosses over a bit.”
Bob Marley and The Wailers were also no strangers to face melters, with the double lead guitar attack of Junior Marvin and Al Anderson. Overdriven guitar solos can also be heard all over the catalog of Steel Pulse, one of the leaders of the British reggae scene.
|Rebelution in New York City in 2011 - Photo Credit: Kaitlin Parry|
“It creates this really spacious sound where people can kind of relax and enjoy the environment, and that’s what I see at a lot of festivals,” Williams said.
Nick Kubley, drummer of rock-infused reggae band Passafire, used to go see moe., Phish, and Umphrey’s McGee, and sees a similar connection to the music in his band’s audience.
“I feel like it has the same effect on anyone, which is a positive effect,” Kubley said. “I don’t know what it is about it. For me, reggae always put me in a better mood.”
Both scenes also often embrace pro-pot lyrics with songs like original Wailer Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” which has been covered by Umphrey’s McGee and Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood, among others.
But there are some distinct differences between the genres that come into play.
“If you want to go and see a band jam, there’s not too many reggae acts that pop into my mind,” said Justin Bowman, also known as DJ BohFunk, who has seen Phish almost 60 times.
Jay Hartman, a Nederland, Colorado resident and devoted reggae fan, says that although the music of both scenes is always danceable, he thinks the lyrics are one thing that sets the two scenes apart.
“Reggae is geared more towards conscious ideas and not necessarily the storytelling that goes on in jam bands,” he said.
Two Scenes with a Common Cause
While the reggae and jam scenes developed practically simultaneously and share similar values, they rule their own domains with distinct elements that set them apart. Ernest Williams of The Wailers thinks it’s the open-mindedness and positivity of the audiences that allows the musical styles to come together.
“Wailers, we’ve kind of rocked with all of them,” he said. “That same audience seems to feel that same oneness of freedom and music.”