Grateful Dead, Phish, Sprout

I haven’t talked about a jamband in a long time. I have an aversion to it like a former Secretary of State doesn’t want to admit letting things go to shit. I don’t want to go there often, yet I am always listening to Phish and the Dead.

On August 9th, 1995, I was at a friend’s house. It was hot outside. We were about to go swimming in the backyard pool when the phone rang. It was my cousin. He had gotten my buddy’s number by calling my mother to tell me some very important and sad news.

Jerry passed. Jerry Garcia was dead. We flicked MTV on, and yes — there was Kurt Loder giving the first announcement of his death. Gone was my guru. There went the guy who was going to lead me into a new way of playing music; he had already led me into a new way of living.

A year earlier, I was mourning the death of Cobain who taught me that not-giving-a-shit could help me write better songs.

After the Dead were over I eventually found Phish, as do most folks seeking improvisational rock. I spent 5 years observing Trey Anastasio lead Phish into a replacement role for the Dead, saw 22 shows, stood in the parking lot for a few others. Six tours; I sold water and juice for gas money. On one tour, I sold my handmade books of poetry. The experience was important.

I don’t mean Phish replaced the Dead as much as I mean they replaced the idea of them; Improvisational rock was kept alive by the timely reception of Phish. What it led to is not all good.

It led to dime-a-dozen jambands trying to capture a “formula” for writing a good “hippie” song. Apply a few methods, tactics and contexts, and there you go — a good “hippie” song. It didn’t work. Testament to this is the failure of jambands to reach the level of success enjoyed by the Dead and Phish. There isn’t a formula. There are too many to name, and too many not worth naming.

A good jamband is comprised of good people having a good time, writing music they feel good about. This isn’t easy to do. Also, you need a genius mixed in there. Oh yeah, the genius part is also hard to come by.


I was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan, home to…well, we used to make car-parts, but lately it seems we make music and art. There is a culture of “Fuck it. Excuse me. I’m off to write a song. I’m off to throw paint on a canvas.” And, to tie this all together, Saginaw has bred what I think is the most important jamband currently playing.

They’re called Sprout. They are genuine in their songwriting, championed by lead guitar player and singer Aaron Johnson. There’s nothing fake about about any of it. Their talent and inspiration is hard to come to terms with. And
Sprout are capable of the pseudo-country effect the Dead and Phish had. They’re capable of the elongated jam that segues into the next tune. They’re capable of captivating any crowd by the way they’re involved in their own tunes. Johnson has that “genius” I was talking about. They’re the real deal.

For several years, I’ve seen Sprout as one of the best currently-performing jambands. I hope after listening to “Longway” you’ll feel the same. Don’t be opposed by the “jambandy” interludes. Listen to the chorus. You won’t find anything more genuine.

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