Here Lies the Jam Band
With the culmination of Dead & Company’s final tour, we are arriving at the end of an era with an unfortunate realization about the future of jam bands.
By Addison Schmidt
Photo by Rolling Stone
Few good things avoid an untimely death.
Most beacons of greatness in entertainment come upon fateful, foretold endings, even if such conclusions feel premature to the audience. Music is not exempt from this vicious cycle. Even the greatest artists eventually turn in their instruments, either by choice or often more painfully for their fans, by a forced hand.
It seems we have come to this unavoidable impasse with the remnants of Grateful Dead, one of psychedelic rock’s most famous and followed participants. This July, Dead & Company - the Grateful Dead spinoff band, featuring three original members - will play their final show at Oracle Park in San Francisco, CA, bringing to an end one of the greatest repertoires of live music in the history of rock-and-roll, which began almost 60 years ago in Menlo Park, CA.
Grateful Dead is more than a titan of the rock-and-roll genre. The band, which was formed in 1965, can be credited with helping create the art of “jam,” a style of live music categorized by improvisation and a blending of artistic styles over long periods of time. Jam bands, mesh rock, blues, folk, and other genres of music at the will of the member’s vision, cultivating performances that stem from their recorded counterparts as they take on a life of their own on stage.
These performances are known for their uniqueness and one-time-only sound, and were the major contributor to Grateful Dead’s popularity throughout the 1960s and 1970s (they often sold more concert tickets for their albums than they did records). Dedicated fans, who would (and still do) refer to themselves as “Deadheads,” follow the Grateful Dead around the United States as they performed live shows, captivated by the ever-changing setlists and musical experimentation. Bootleg tapes of shows, a staple within the Deadhead culture, have further memorialized the band's distinctive talent for jamming.
While Grateful Dead only had one top-40 hit in the states — “Touch of Grey” reached #9 on the Billboard charts — their legacy as rock visionaries exists because of this unique, dependent relationship between themselves and their fans on the shared experience of live music. And, while other classic jam bands are still creating and performing - Phish, another monolith within the genre, is going on tour in 2023, and Dave Matthews Band has continued to release new music - Dead & Company’s final performances are a sobering reminder of the changing tides of the live music industry.
Concerts in recent years have become an increasingly hard-to-reach commodity, with skyrocketing tickets that are nearly impossible to obtain. In late 2022, Taylor Swift fans found themselves at odds with Ticketmaster and its parent company, Live Nation, as fans attempted to purchase tickets for Swift’s upcoming “Eras” tour. Many fans found themselves stuck in virtual queues for hours on end, and despite the average face value ticket price being under $500, resale prices on other ticket websites soared to above $20,000 a piece.
Swift is not the only artist whose concerts have faced the wrath of the Ticketmaster system. Earlier this year, The Cure spoke out against Ticketmaster for adding fees on intentionally low-priced tickets, some of which nearly doubled the price of the original ticket. Neil Young also lamented about the drastic changes in touring on his “Archives” website earlier this year, proclaiming a truth that many have feared is a long time coming — “It’s over. The old days are gone,” he wrote. “Concert tours are not what they were.”
The Ticketmaster monopoly poses a threat to the surface level of the live music experience; it has repeatedly limited availability to fans and threatened the control musicians have over their performances. However, it also poses a deeper concern — one that affects jam bands on a disproportionate level.
When a genre relies on live performances to persist, the death of touring affects not only their ability to perform, but also the nature of their art. Jam bands and concerts exist in a dependent relationship, it is impossible for jamming to prominently exist without tours as they provide the necessary time and opportunities for improvisation to take place.
I fear that the future of jamming is represented by the final tour of Dead & Company. As concerts as we know them begin to die, jam bands are crumbling in unwilling solidarity.
Dismantling monopolies like Ticketmaster is important not only for fans, who deserve to see their favorite artists live and at a reasonable price, but also for jam bands whose artistry thrives in the kind of environment that only live performance can provide.
Music takes on a unique existence when artists are given the platform to improvise, when live performance is a celebration of a band’s synergy and not just a cash grab or a repetition of studio tracks. Jamming is representative of an art form that cannot be captured in the studio, a magic undercurrent of rock-and-roll that is bolstered by the talent of artists like Grateful Dead, who not only performed but also experimented. It deserves to have a future, as illustrious as the one created by its founders — even if the concert truly has been laid to rest.