Main

December 7, 2008

Wookiefoot

This is a website dedicated to the Jam Band Wookiefoot. For the past three months I have been studying Jam Bands and more specifically the Minneapolis band Wookiefoot. I started studying them in September after seeing them live at the Cabooze. This website goes through my experience at the Wookiefoot concert, the history of Jam Bands, and an analysis of a song of theirs. Enjoy!

pic.jpg

Jam Bands: A History

pic3.jpg
The Grateful Dead

This goes into detail about the history of Jam Bands. By definition a Jam Band is a band that incorporates many genres of music such as rock, folk, blues, jazz, and most importantly improvisation. The Grateful Dead were the pioneers of Jam Bands. For nearly 30 years the Dead conquered by jamming throughout the United States followed closely by their fans, the Dead Heads. By the 1990's, the Grateful Dead had stopped touring and their fan base had largely turned to a band called Phish. Phish toured for nearly 20 years, until retiring in 2004. Now, there are numerous Jam Bands all with their own unique style.

pic4.jpg
Phish

Dating back to the 1930’s, the term Jam Band was used to describe a band that used only improvisation and no written music. Jam Bands today offer a rich dynamic of textures and sounds from an influence of multiple music genres including blues, jazz, funk, bluegrass, rock, and techno. Originating with the legendary band, The Grateful Dead, Jam Bands today have a multitude of influences to create great music.

In 1937, Coleman Hawkins formed the band Coleman Hawkins and His All Star Jam Band, coining the phrase Jam Band (Coleman Hawkins). The concept of Jam Bands resurfaced with The Grateful Dead in the 1960’s, but the term was not formally used to describe their style of music at first. In 1962 singer/songwriter Jerry Garcia formed the group Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champion with Bob Weir on rhythmic guitar and vocals; and Ron “Pigpen? McKernan on keyboard, harmonica, percussion and vocals. In 1965 the group renamed themselves The Warlocks adding to their lineup Phil Lesh on bass and vocals, and Bill Kreutzmann on drums and percussion. As the year drew to an end, the band renamed themselves the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia chose the name when he picked up a folklore dictionary and landed his finger on “the grateful dead,? meaning the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who as an act of charity arranged their burial.

The band formed in an era when bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were dominating the scene. Unlike mainstream bands, the Grateful Dead decided to move into a new direction of electric music. The musical background of each member made the Grateful Dead’s sound different than that of Bob Dylan and The Lovin’ Spoonful, who had both been incorporating electric instruments into their music. For instance, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir were folk musicians; Phil Lesh had an electronic music background, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann excelled in jazz and R&B. The Grateful Dead began to dominate the rock and roll scene with their diverse style of psychedelia, jazz, blues, rock and roll, folk, bluegrass, and musical improvisation. Their music could be defined as having multiple moods throughout their touring years. After 30 years of recording, playing, and touring, the band’s sound and each member’s stylistic role became more identifiable. Phil Lesh began playing guitar as if he were the second lead guitarist, combining his skills of music theory and trumpet playing into creating more complex and symphonic melodies. The band’s lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, incorporated common themes of love and loss, beauty and horror, chaos and order, God, and less often used themes of the environment and current issues of politics. By combining multiple elements of musical style, most importantly improvisation, The Grateful Dead are considered the pioneers of Jam Bands (The Grateful Dead).

By the 1990’s, The Grateful Dead had stopped touring and their fan base had largely turned to a band called Phish. Phish was the first to formally apply the modern definition of a Jam Band. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine described Phish as “the living, breathing, noodling definition of the term? Jam Band, which had become “a cultural phenomenon, followed across the country from summer shed to summer shed by thousands of new-generation hippies and hacky-sack enthusiasts, and spawning a new wave of bands oriented around group improvisation and superextended grooves?(Rolling Stone). Phish had created a trend, which has influenced multiple bands today. The term Jam Band today is used loosely to describe a band that incorporates more than one genre of music such as folk, blues, electric jazz, rock and roll, country rock and improvisation.

The Grateful Dead pioneered a new musical style. When they stopped touring near the 1990s Phish inherited their style, although they made it their own by incorporating jazz, funk and rock elements. Phish dominated the Jam Band scene for over 20 years until retiring in 2004, much to the disappointment of their fans. While The Grateful Dead and Phish embraced the Jam Band label, bands such as The Allman Brothers and Dave Matthews Band refused to accept it. Greg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band was quoted saying The Allman Brothers is not a Jam Band, but rather “a band that jams? (Dean Budnick). In an interview done by Mike Haid with Jeff Sipe of the Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU), Jeff responds to being asked about the “whole jam scene? (Mike Haid) by saying,

“It means what Miles Davis and all the heavy jazz cats have
been doing for years. It means what all the international tribal
cultures have been doing for generations. It's grown out of the
musical necessity for improvisation and exploration. [It] attracts
people interested in hearing music as an expressive journey
explored by creative artists? (Mike Haid).

Notable jam bands today such as Sound Tribe Sector 9, The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, Widespread Panic, and Yonder Mountain String Band are now crossing musical boundaries by incorporating stylistic influences from many genres. However, one aspect of their differentiating musical styles stays the same: an emphasis on improvised musical performances as opposed to structured and planned live performances and recordings.

There are many aspects that contribute to a performance of jam band. The most important aspect being “feel?; when the “feel? is right, the music flows like water. The Minneapolis jam band Wookiefoot exerted this concept of “feel? at their show I attended last month. For the entire duration of the show, two and a half hours, the band was feeling the music, and conveying their emotions and energy musically to the audience, which was primarily composed of mid-aged white middle class men and women dressed casually in t-shirts and jeans or hand made skirts and dresses. Many musicians have “feel? yet know no musical theory let alone how to transcribe their music to paper. Comfort level is also another important feature of a solid performance. It is easy, as an audience member, to read the band’s performance and comfort level, especially if the audience is educated in the genre and in the band itself. Performers who preplan their entire concerts lose the spontaneity of the show, which the audience can recognize. Bands that can feel the sound, reach a mutual comfort level on stage between the members, and improvise their music resulting in what makes a good Jam Band performance and receiving a positive response from its fans.

Much of the concept of a Jam Band relies on its fans. The Grateful Dead and Phish are both noted for having an extremely faithful and loyal fan base. A “Deadhead? became anyone who followed the Grateful Dead from show to show. The Deadheads had such a strong influence that supposedly the band restructured their shows to create an alternation of songs rotating every 3 or 4 performances. Comparably, fans of Phish have referred to themselves as Phans, Phriends, Phamily, or Phishheads. Their loyalty to the band has reached as far as sponsoring research projects like The Mockingbird Project, which is dedicated to educating children about music and has also announced two $5,000 grants to Hampton, Virginia and to Hampton, Nebraska as a result of the Reunion fund begun in 2007(Parker Chip). The fan base is the force that drives Jam Bands. Much of their strive to produce music and perform live is solely based on their fans and the impact they have on the band.

Originating with the legendary jazz musician Coleman Hawkins and growing into a national phenomenon of political statements, current and past Jam Bands have made their mark on recent music culture. The Grateful Dead pioneered the concept of the modern-day Jam Band by incorporating multiple music genres, improvising live performances, and having a tight-knit fan base as their primary motivating force. Following close behind when the Grateful Dead stopped touring, Phish was the first band to officially be called a Jam Band. Influenced by The Dead, Phish created their own unique style by incorporating the main ideas used by The Grateful Dead, which gained immense popularity throughout the United States. Jam Bands is a relatively new musical genre and is quickly gaining popularity with new bands emerging and new fans being converted into a “jammer?.

My Experience

This is an account of my first-hand experience at a Wookiefoot concert. Wookiefoot is a Jam Band from Minneapolis. Their music is a mixture of reggae, psychedelic, rock, folk, blues, and improvisation. In September I saw them perform at a small concert venue in Minneapolis, Minnesota called the Cabooze. The size of the venue made for an intimate setting between the band and the crowd. The band was only a few yards in front of me playing on a three foot high stage.

pic5.jpg

“You’re going to see Wookiefoot? All my “hippie? friends are going, but that crowd is not for me? one of my friends asked via text message. By the looks of her response to my invitation she had me thinking this was going to be some outing: perhaps full of folk dressed in clothes made from their grandmothers’ hand-me-downs, or the consumption of psychedelic substances and those of which are not psychedelic yet illegal nonetheless, or mood altering music transferring the audience and band members to a different realm. I dragged one of my “trendy? friends to The Cabooze with me on Friday night September 26. She was skeptical about how the night would enfold, being that she would have much rather gone to Frat Row to partake in the consumption of too much alcohol and do things she would have most likely regretted in the morning. In a way, I saved her from a night of humiliation. She agreed to come on the adventure with me and we arrived at The Cabooze after a brief debate over where to park.

The Cabooze is connected to a biker joint. Swarming the street in front of the two were Harley Davidson’s with biker boys and biker babes eyeing their biker competition. It was a spectacle to see these two completely different cultures of people intermingled on a chilly Friday night both of which were out to enjoy themselves. There seemed to be an imaginary line separating those interested in making a loud engine roaring appearance dressed in all leather, and those interested in making a more humble appearance after finding a place to park, who had come to support a local band. The patio of the venue had a decent number of people socializing, out of which a majority was smoking cigarettes, or what appeared to be cigarettes. We walked in and were immediately stopped by the bouncer who checked our ID’s, and signaled to a woman at the cash register. The woman charged us $13 each which included a $3 fee for being underage. The woman made a reference to us about how she felt bad we were underage, but that in a couple of years we would be able to consume and receive the coveted purple wristband instead of the translucent stamp only visible under a black light. The Cabooze has a small stage located in between a large island bar near the entrance and a smaller bar towards the other end. Outlining the back wall are long tables with seating facing the stage. The seating areas were filled when we arrived, leaving us to stand with the small, yet chaotic crowd during the opening band, The High Strung String Band. There were a significantly less number of people for the opening band than for the headlining band.

Wookiefoot is a “high energy magical phenomenon sustained by a beautiful family of players and believers. [They] are ordinary people supporting each other to do extraordinary things? (Wookiefoot, About Wookiefoot). The group’s main focus is to help other cultures in need (Wookiefoot, About Wookiefoot) and to create awareness about social issues and injustices throughout the world. From a stereotypical point of view the group portrayed themselves is this general manner on Friday night with the two lead singers dressed modestly in jeans and graphic t-shirts – much to the disappointment of the crowd who anticipated the costume-like garb usually worn by the group during performances. The audience was predominantly dressed in jeans, long skirts, and simple t-shirts. I was modestly dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and felt as though I fit in. The majority of Wookiefoot’s fan base was not anything noticeable. Like many bands today making and playing non-mainstream music, the kinds of fans they attract come from different back rounds, different social classes, as well as different ethnicities. This was apparent at the concert. As I looked around the venue that night, I could not pinpoint someone who looked as though they did not belong. The average age of the audience ranged from 18 (18+ show) to mid 40’s with a couple of biker boys drifting between settings eager to see first hand the reason for the screaming and dancing. It was a real hodgepodge of people who attended being that I saw it predominantly advertised in local newspapers such as The Vitamin, and City Pages. The show had an age restriction, which was strictly enforced as well as the prevention of underage drinking. This possibly eliminated social cliques, whether under 18 or under 21, who were banking on the chance of underage drinking from attending this event.

According to iTunes, Wookiefoot is generalized as spoken word, but the group categorizes themselves as a mixture of a jam band, reggae and psychedelic according to the their MySpace account. Composed of 11 group members, Wookiefoot looked a little crowded on the stage. In the front of the stage were the two main singers, and three back up singers who also danced the entire night, keeping up with the energetic crowd. Behind them the drum player, guitar players, flautist, saxophonist and piano player stood. Standing in the crowd, I observed the equality of the group. The music was not overbearing the vocals and visa-versa. It was as if they were a team and playing music was there sport. This was the first time I had seen Wookiefoot play and was not familiar with their music, however the crowd knew a majority of the songs played and knew how to appropriate ways to respond to it. Their vocals made many references to this upcoming election, the importance of voting, and the presidential candidates and their running mates. They use music to make a statement. One of their songs, “Be the Change? which they performed early in the night, reminds us that we cannot sit back if do not agree, we must act on it such as Ghandi, the Dali Lama, Mother Theresa, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated.

As the evening progressed, more and more of the folk at the bar next door had ventured to The Cabooze, diminishing the made-up boundary between the two groups of people. Both groups shared in the consuming of alcohol. The Cabooze has two fully stocked and functioning bars, both of which were in full operating mode serving the public who had received the purple wristband. The influence of alcohol and other substances consumed, affected the behavior of the crowd and the energy it exerted on the band. After the opening band, the crowd waited 45 minutes before the headliners came out to play. When they first arrived on stage, they apologized for making us wait and said they had been drinking, as if that were an adequate excuse for their delay. With drinks in hand, the band toasted to the crowd, to peace, and to a great night. At that moment, the entire audience erupted and Wookiefoot started playing. Their opening number created a cycle of energies being transferred between the band and the crowd. The bands’ presence was confident, relaxed, and comfortable. The crowd recognized that and in return gave off positive energy in the form of dance and movement, which was then transformed by the band into a stronger force being exerted onto the crowd. This created a cycle that strengthened with every song. Every song continued to build on the one previous and the climax continued for the last two or three songs. The response from the crowd indicated this was a good performance. The band kept the crowd entertained for the entire show and left them wanting more at the end.

As a performer, it is necessary to establish common ground and mutual respect with your audience in order to achieve a positive response. As a conscious first-timer to Wookiefoot, I felt they had established those properties and the crowd reacted in an affirmative manner with respect to the music played and the performance of the group the entire night. From start to finish the band played what the audience wanted to hear and in response the audience was able to follow in a positive manner. Screaming the lyrics, shouting, dancing in a way that resembled a moderate mosh-pit were the positive encounters within the crowd. Not only did the crowd establish common ground with the band, but also people on the floor changed the relationships with each other as the night advanced. The people sitting at the bar towards the end of the show were in the middle of the dance floor. Wookiefoot is talented at what they do. They had the crowd going from start to finish bringing in additional elements which all accumulated into an enlightening event for many and a new experience for me.

Musical Analysis

To further my investigation on the band, I analyzed the song Activate by Wookiefoot. This song combines elements of rock, folk, blues, and musical improvisation, which are all main components of a Jam Band.


Activate

Activate Live

Wookiefoot creates a broad spectrum of music. Being a Jam Band, it’s an open road as to what rules it must follow according to its classified genre. The majority of Wookiefoot’s music incorporates many elements to their music such as form, texture, rhythm, melody, and timbre. While listening to their music, it’s not only the lyrics that gain the concentration of the piece, but also the musical support of the background, which guides the lyrics and makes the sounds and melodies of the piece flow. Off of their fourth released CD, Activate, continues a story of the Monkey from their previously released album Domesticated. The Monkey is a character created by the band used to illustrate their thoughts on the American culture. In the Domesticated album, the Monkey is locked up in its cage, escaped to an island and got dementia. The Monkey returned home with nothing. Nothing was hard to break so it ran into the light, the light of a train. As it goes through adventures in the after life it faces many challenges. The song “Activate?, demonstrates subtleties and sonic layers apparent and experienced by the listener.

The music behind the melody of the piece is broken into different parts. It mainly consists of two riffs, the first being of the verses and the second of the chorus, which are separated by a repeating interlude of guitar and drums. The intro lasts for 10 seconds and starts as a banjo, which then gets interrupted by an interlude lasting 8 measures of 4 beats each of an electric-sounding guitar accompanied by a steady drumbeat. The first riff follows that, which then leads into the first verse. The verses, which are played twice throughout the duration of the song, are the same length and are played by the banjo and a single vocal. However, the second verse adds to it a simple drumbeat, but one that does not overpower the melody of the banjo. Starting half way through the verse, the vocals are sung faster and the instrumentals get louder. The verse ends and leads directly into the next riff of the chorus. The verse builds in excitement and the vocals become stronger, which add up to a climatic lead into the chorus. The chorus repeats itself three times throughout the song. All of which are the same length and include the banjo and steady background drumbeat as well as multiple vocals. The third chorus adds an electric guitar due to the climatic ending of the song. After the climatic final second riff, one last interlude plays and fades out into the outro of a single fiddle for two measures indicating the end of the song.

The texture of the song is one of homophony. The single melody played entirely by the banjo with occasional accompaniment of the electric guitar, contains harmonies in the vocals. During the chorus, a harmony of two voices is heard.

Throughout the entire piece, the tempo is consistent at 85-93 beats per minute. Due to the slow, steady tempo, the listener is able to pick up on the rhythmic formations. The basic pulses fall into groups of 4, suggesting a 4/4 time signature (meaning four beats per measure and the quarter note gets one beat). Throughout the duration of the piece, all of the phrases are split evenly into 4/4 measures. The beginning intro and interlude last for 12 measures before the first riff is played, which lasts for 8 measures. The second riff is grouped into 4 measures followed by the interlude, which lasts for the same duration as the second riff. The cyclicity of the first riff, the second riff, and the interlude are consistent in their respective number of groups of 4 beats per measure.

The same melodies are repeated throughout each phrased melody, such as the interlude, and the first and second riffs. The banjo carries the melody throughout the entire piece and is occasionally accompanied by an electric guitar, drums, and vocals. One of the main characteristics of a Jam Band is improvisation. This version of the song being analyzed is from a recorded album and therefore sounds rehearsed. The live version of this song uses a more diverse set of instruments, textures and rhythms. In the live version I used played on Halloween night, the entire band played together in an obvious improvised interlude. The piano was the most prominent instrument heard, although it did not drown out the bass, guitar, banjo, drums, or the saxophone. As the piano plays, the song reaches its climax. At the end of the interlude, the band goes into its final chorus and holds the microphone to the crowd. In response, loud screeches from the audience are heard and they join the band in singing the last chorus. The final interlude and outro build to wailing high notes and compliment the lyrics. The song is about getting together and now being the time to activate. Simple banjo plucking compliments the vocals, which use the idea of coming together just as the lyrics suggest. It would be inappropriate to have an outrageous electric guitar, or drum solo because neither one of those instruments are predominately used. The piano served its purpose of getting the crowd to its peak and putting an exciting, unexpected twist on the originally recorded version. In the studio version of the song, it does not appear to have a truly improvised solo. The song uses the shape of the phrases in the recorded version to sound smooth and connected. It is most enticing when the second riff is played for the third time. The climatic end of the interlude leaves the listener wanting the song to somehow conclude in an organized fashion. The most abrupt part during the song is when the electric guitar cuts in and out. The electric guitar is not a crunchy sound, but rather a smooth sound giving more flow and variety to the song. The range of notes played is nothing extraordinary. It seems as though each phrase and short passage start low and end on the same tone or higher making a lead into the next segment.

The sounds of the piece, whether instrumental or vocal, entice the listener in individual ways. The instrumental sounds are produced through string (chordophone), and electric signal (electrophone). The tones of the instruments are clear sounding and compliment the vocals. During the verses, the vocals are classified as spoken word, almost a slow rap. The clear, and precise plucking of banjo and guitars make the vocals stand out and easier to understand. The sounds are divided into two unequal parts. The instrumentals, which are heard through the entire duration of the song, compared to the vocals, which are heard 2/5 of the song, but are also spoken in a clear and easily heard and understood manner.

In Activate, Wookiefoot uses many different musical elements to comprise this piece. The form uses a general pattern of two riffs and frequently repeated interludes. It’s a simple piece consisting of the same rhythm throughout and little variety in texture. Overall, after listening to the two versions of this song, recorded and live versions, I have come to realize the live version included more character, feeling and excitement. In my previous paper about the history of Jam Bands and Wookiefoot, I discovered that a major part of a Jam Band is there use and degree of improvisation. After analyzing a piece that uses little or no improvisation and then briefly analyzing a piece that does, it is obvious to me which is well put together and uses the most essential elements of a good Jam Band.