The 5th Annual Jammy Awards took place on April 26, 2005 at The Theater inside Madison Square Garden. Each year this little “ceremony” serves as an excuse to get great musicians together to collaborate, and, if the audience is lucky, jam. The New York crowd rarely takes the night seriously, but each year the musicians treat the evening with more and more reverence.
This year’s Jammy Awards were falling at an awkward time. Smack in the middle of Jazzfest, a lot of bands (and fans) were unable to attend due to their commitments in the Crescent City. New York City had just recently come down off of the high of a three-night Widespread Panic run, complete with a wide assortment of post-show late-night gigs. A lot of music fans were just plain tired by the time April 26th rolled around, and talk of The Jammys was met with a collective “Eh.”
Past ceremonies featured bizarre combinations yielding ecstatic highs, as well as uncomfortable pairings creating painfully monotonous music. With an unusually large slate of mainstream performers on the bill, the stage was ripe for the unexpected.
Speaking of mainstream performers, the Jammys have become a publicist’s wet dream. I can see the fax now: “Was your client popular between 5 and 35 years ago? Is your client releasing an album or book/mounting a comeback/in dire need of some activity to keep him occupied and out of jail? Is your client capable of repeatedly telling the audience how much they rock? If so, you have found a second home at the Jammys!”
On with the report card:
North Mississippi Allstars – I walked in as NMA was rockin’ out. Umphrey’s McGee’s Kris Myers was manning the drums while Cody Dickinson was going ballistic on the washboard. Cody then got back behind the kit as Mavis Staples was called out with lyric sheet in hand to sing “Freedom Highway.” There was a lot of repetition here, but the beat kept moving. Finally, the segment was closed with Buddy Guy coming out to tear the crap out of “Got My Mojo Workin’.” He had a nice call-and-response going with Cody, and it would have been interesting had the song lasted longer than 3 minutes.
Event producer Peter Shapiro raised the first eyebrows of the evening when I believe he stated that the musicians were not being paid for their time. Regardless, he fared much better than he did last year when he was overwhelmingly booed for thanking the devil incarnate, Clear Channel.
When he was introduced, host Phil Lesh, who didn’t do much hosting but did a fair amount of sitting-in, received a raucous ovation. Somewhere Mickey Hart brooded and plotted his revenge.
Bruce Hornsby with Yonder Mountain String Band and Vince Herman – With Hornsby being capable of playing a phenomenal bluegrass piano, this collaboration had all the potential in the world. So much for potential. Sound problems doomed this unit from the start, and aside from Hornsby, Jeff Austin was the only musician who could be consistently heard. For whatever reason, both Herman and Ben Kaufman exited the stage for a long and puzzling stretch of time. As Hornsby ran through “Valley Road” and “Darlin’ Corey->A Night on the Town,” he had a nice solo breakdown, but I never got the sense he was actually listening to the other guys on stage. (He probably couldn’t hear them either.) If Old & In The Way was ragged but right, this pairing was ragged but wrong. The night was young, and the Jammys had their first major disappointment. Wah-hoo!
The Song of the Year Jammy went to Umphrey’s McGee’s “In the Kitchen,” proving that jamband fans just can’t resist mediocre vocals.
The Lifetime Achievement Jammy, a.k.a. the “You’re Still Alive and You Were Willing To Come Here” Trophy, went to Buddy Guy, and in a funny speech, he energetically thanked everyone who jammed before him and influenced his music.
Buddy Guy, John Mayer, Phil Lesh, and ?uestlove – I was disgusted to see that overrated little piece of Chelsea candy known as John Mayer on stage with a legend like Buddy Guy, and Buddy ran circles around him during “Hoochie Coochie Man.” ?uestlove laid down a nice beat, and Phil played roving basslines while the rest of the band basically ignored him. Truthfully, the blues would not be Lesh’s strong suit, but eventually, the others onstage warmed up to him. As for Mayer, I’m sick of hearing 17-year-olds swoon over his all-flash-and-no-substance watered-down blues antics, and I enjoyed watching Buddy give him a musical spanking. Then the legend suddenly told the audience that he plays with John Mayer because he wants the blues to live. “NO,” I screamed. “Introduce yourself to Derek Trucks! His body is NOT a wonderland!” My cries having fallen on deaf ears, the group started “Stormy Monday” and Mayer proceeded to tear the shit out of his axe. With real soul, he built his solo into a thunderous climax, answering an age old question: Does John Mayer have testicles? Surprisingly, he does. Buddy guided everyone into a short “Rock Me” before exiting the stage. The remaining trio then grinded into a sweet funky jam that sadly suffered from jammus interruptus and ended abruptly. Regardless, Mayer had proved himself to be a man, and I was stunned. The foundations of my world had crumbled, so I retreated to my seat and sulked.
Grade: A (begrudgingly)
The New Groove Jammy had some serious competition, but The Benevento-Russo Duo deservedly came out on top. Last year, New Groove nominee (and winner) Psychedelic Breakfast took the opportunity to shorten their name to The Breakfast, and this year, nominee Bockman’s Euphio followed suit by ditching the “’s Euphio.” Personally, I was hoping that The Benevento-Russo Duo would have been the ones to abbreviate their name because it’s too many letters to type, and I’d like to see everyone call them The.
The Tour of the Year went to Phish. Hey, why not honor a band for sloppy performances, a disastrous finale, and some of the worst live music of its career? Mike Gordon had a great acceptance speech, talking about the band’s three major rules:
1) Dont piss off (soundman) Paul (Languedoc).
2) Dont analyze.
3) Don’t Die.
Then Mike said they added a fourth rule at the conclusion of the tour:
4) Don’t Play.
Umphrey’s McGee with Huey Lewis and Jeff Coffin – All the Hueyheads were waiting for this moment, and the man with the power of love played his harmonica on “She Caught the Katy.” The combination of UM and HL on this blues classic was flat-out lifeless. If you were watching a UPN sitcom and they needed to show white guys doing a bad job of playing the blues, this performance would make a great punchline. It was dreadfully boring. “Heart and Soul” provided the comedy of the night, as everyone laughed at the shitty music we used to listen to in the ‘80s. As the bowl was passed in my direction, I felt like I was living in an outtake from Teen Wolf.
Umphrey’s McGee with Huey Lewis, Jeff Coffin, and Mavis Staples – It’s really hard to screw up “The Weight” and they didn’t. On the other hand, it’s not hard to play “The Weight” with passion, and they didn’t.
Umphrey’s McGee with Huey Lewis, Jeff Coffin, Mavis Staples, and Sinead O’Connor –
Dear Ms. Staples,
Thank you for recording a great song like “I’ll Take You There.”
P.S. The next time you perform this song live with a talented backup band, remember that you are allowed to occasionally stop singing and let the musicians take a solo.
Umphrey’s hit the groove well, but as Mavis never shut her legendary yap, they couldn’t do anything with it. When she finally exited, a frustrated Jeff Coffin briefly soloed in the shadows. Insert your own symbolism.
I think in the near future, I may begin referring to The Grahamy Jammy as the bullshit award. It’s all about the industry patting itself on the back, awarding promoters who make their livelihood from the jamband world. Whoopdeefriggindoo. Who really holds a candle to the great Bill Graham? There have been some decent winners in the past, but awarding Terrapin Tapes/Gathering of the Vibes overlord Ken Hayes reeked of immorality. While Hayes originally turned a good deed in serving tapers through his company and later creating a much-needed East Coast gathering for Deadheads in the wake of Garcia’s passing, you’d be hard-pressed to find some recent noteworthy accomplishments. His company went bust, and within the past four years, he has presided over some very controversial and ill-fated festivals. And we’re honoring him because? He needs to sell tickets to the 10th Annual Gathering of the Vibes, an event typically sponsored by Relix/Jambands.com. Hayes wasn’t coy about mentioning that tickets are on sale, natch. Excuse me while I puke.
The Download of the Year nominee announcement was noteworthy in that String Cheese Incident was lustily booed by the New York audience. It was the first of several boos over the course of the evening. The Dead’s performance at Bonnaroo proved victorious and was met with hearty approval.
Keller Williams – Keller did a nice but relatively short version of “Best Feeling.”
Keller Williams with Nellie McKay and ?uestlove – This very unique combo began with a solo McKay number that sounded like punk being played on a church organ. Her somewhat abrasive voice then fueled “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” with Keller on bass. She moved directly into what I would assume was one of her own dirge-like songs before bringing everything back to Dylan’s aforementioned classic. The guy standing to my right begged me to be kind to McKay’s harsh vocals “because she’s really cute.” Who can argue with that kind of logic?
Keller Williams with ?uestlove – Here came the sickness. Keller went wild on the bass, and ?uestlove played some impressive beats. They teased and wound their way through multiple songs before landing on “Word Up” for a lengthy period and then continuing their big funk jam. Actual jamming at the Jammys? Imagine that!
The DVD of the year went to Phish’s “IT.” Some boos were heard and SCI suddenly didn’t feel so bad. I believe Jeff “The Dude” Dowd presented this award with a rant about the virtues of West Coast sensimilia, proving that you can do a lot of drugs, have no recognizable talents or skills, and still become semi-famous.
The Live Album of the Year went to the Jerry Garcia Band for After Midnight Keen College 2/28/80. The recipient thanked the Jerry Garcia estate, which made me happy because the beneficiaries of Jerry’s money just don’t get enough credit for the music a dead man made 25 years ago. Just as he was on the verge of being booed, the recipient wisely thanked Jerry, and there was much rejoicing.
Ryan Adams – I’m not entirely familiar with Ryan Adams’ music. I’d never seen him live, but I do know some of his studio material, and I really like a few of his songs. At this performance, his sullen rock star persona seemed a little out of place, and his band was deafeningly loud. It doesn’t make much sense to have the rhythm guitarist turned up way louder than the lead guitarist, but that’s what happens when it’s the rhythm guitarist’s band. I don’t know how to describe the music aside from saying it was a big, loud, rockin’ mush of sound.
Ryan Adams and Phil Lesh – The volume didn’t drop a whole lot, but this performance really defined the way to do justice to a cover tune. Adams played and sang “Wharf Rat” with intense passion, his lead player soloed with Garciaesque grace, and Phil was dancing all over the bottom end. In the middle of this stirring rendition, the musicians suddenly found themselves deep in a reggae groove, and Adams adapted his vocal delivery to fit the new style. Once again, it was refreshing to find someone engaging in inspired improvisation at The Jammys. This was possibly the best “Wharf Rat” I’ve heard in the post-Garcia era. The “Birdsong” that followed was very short, fizzled out quickly and awkwardly, and should have never been started in the first place. My guess is that they unexpectedly ran out of time.
The MiMi Fishman award went to Headcount for their impressive work on registering voters.
The Benevento-Russo Duo with Mike Gordon, as well as Les Claypool, Gabby La La, and Phil Lesh – In a racing take on “The Beltless Buckler,” Gordon laid down interesting bass grooves against the swirling psychedelic variety show of Benevento and Russo. Eventually, a pig-masked Claypool joined on upright bass, and the greenhaired Gabby La La played electric sitar on a lengthy jam that also featured Phil Lesh. At one point, all three basses played as a trio and tried to discover if three basses can sound good together. The answer is yes and no. At times, the three created quite a din, although there were moments of interesting clarity. The Claypool composition “Dee’s Diner” closed out the fun. Unfortunately, it’s not a very pleasant song to hear, but there were lots of unique and bizarre moments in the jam.
The Studio Album of the Year was introduced by two stereotypical DJs from New York’s Q104. Apparently, people must really hate these guys because a large group steadily booed them throughout their speech. Govt Mule’s Deja Voodoo was victorious, and Warren Haynes received a huge ovation when he came out with the rest of Mule to accept. Unfortunately, that was the last we saw of Warren and Mule as they never played a single note throughout the course of the evening.
The Disco Biscuits with Travis Tritt and Travis Tritt’s drummer – I wish I knew Travis Tritt’s drummer’s name, but I believe he was introduced as merely “Travis Tritt’s drummer.” Anyway, the dude can play, and the Disco Biscuits made him tackle one of their tougher compositions, “House Dog Party Favor.” Not being much of a Biscuits fan, I was surprised to really enjoy this progish and complex number. Their playing was tight, the sections of the song had lots of variety, and the drummer smoked. This tune segued into Travis Tritt’s “Honkytonk,” as the country star strode out onstage and seemed to be having a blast with his newfound backup band. A fierce jam ensued, and Tritt tried his damnedest to keep up with the laser-quick fingers of Jon Gutwillig. Of course, no one could hear Tritt’s guitar, so it didn’t really matter, but he gets style points for enthusiastically strumming his axe. Marc Brownstein was very aggressive on the bass and a huge rocking climax flowed right back into “House Dog Party Favor.” Everyone onstage was having a great time, and this odd-pairing wound up being one of the shockingly best moments of the evening. It was quite refreshing to see the Disco Biscuits play without being surrounded by 16-year-olds popping ecstasy and sucking on pacifiers.
After scheduled presenter Anthony DeCurtis was AWOL, the Live Album of the Year was awarded to Keller Williams’ Stage.
The Live Performance of the Year was captured by Phil Lesh and Friends’ 12/19/04 gig at the Warfield, and Phil gave his organ donor rap, which inexplicably pissed off the guy next to me. I guess the guy was not a fan of transplants.
Medeski, Martin, and Wood with The Antibalas Horns, Sinead O’Connor, and Burning Spear – Beginning with “Chant Down Babylon” this large aggregation fell deep into a very real retro reggae sound. With the aid of the excellent Antibalas horns, MMW sounded as if they’d been the super-tight backbone of a reggae band for their entire lives. Burning Spear was the real deal and Sinead added tasteful harmony…at the start. I wasn’t paying too much attention to her singing because I kept hoping she might be cap her performance by gluing together a picture of the Pope, but it didn’t happen. “Marcus Garvey” kept the deep reggae groove moving, although at this point, it was obvious that the talents of MMW and Antibalas were being wasted. With O’Connor and Burning Spear refusing to stop singing, the instrumentalists never had a chance to move, and they stayed locked in the repetitive groove. Then things took a turn for the worse, as the two vocalists attempted an accapella stab at “Jah No Dead.” Everything has its time and place, and The Jammys aren’t the time and place for accapella ballads. To make matters worse, the two were off-key, and nearly two minutes into the song, O’Connor stopped the performance and made everyone start over, commanding the guitarist to give Burning Spear his note and then reprimanding the singer for being out of key. To make matters worse, the re-started version was still painfully out of key. As you might imagine, this torturous act was met with a nice smattering of boos, a recurring theme for the evening. I have only this to say to Ms. O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 Retirement.”
Medeski, Martin, and Wood with The Antibalas Horns, Sinead O’Connor, Burning Spear, Luther Dickinson, Jon Gutwillig, Aron Magner, Marco Benevento, Les Claypool, ?uestlove – And we knew The Jammys were ending because the “powerjam” was forming. As in the past, said powerjam featured almost no jamming. “Lively Up Yourself” was a great choice, and Luther Dickinson got in a couple shredding licks. However, we found ourselves languishing back in a familiar problem, as Sinead wouldn’t stop singing and let someone solo or jam. This problem was compounded by Gutwillig, who, during what may be the only vocal sit-in of his life, engaged Sinead in a back-and-forth duet of stupidity. Although Gutwillig’s vocals were surprisingly not painfully out of key, his “contribution” lasted the entire song and prevented any instrumentalist from making a statement. Great. Then MMW launched into “Crosstown Traffic.” Sinead looked confused and just held her mic at her side, never singing once throughout the song. The same goes for the seemingly intoxicated Gutwillig. With the vocalists out of the way, we could be getting somewhere. Unfortunately, no one wanted to play lead, and initially, no one replicated the vocal line of the song, so we were basically stuck with a mass of players all playing the rhythm at full volume. Every once in a while there was a hint of a keyboard solo or a guitar riff, but it was hard to distinguish much of anything. Burning Spear manned percussion, ?uestlove got on the kit, and Billy Martin went nuts on the timbales in what was probably the highlight of this “jam.” Martin then took up the cowbell, danced across the stage and was leading the group. With aplomb, he built the tension to a great climax, but everyone hung onto to it for just a little too long, and the energy fizzled. Without much ado, the powerjam cocktease ended at 12:45, Shapiro came out to tell us it was over, and another Jammys was in the books.
Powerjam Grade: B-
This year’s Jammys was good but certainly not great. There weren’t many peaks, but there weren’t many awful moments, either. It was more of a milquetoast affair, but it was name-brand milquetoast.
Overall Grade: B-