The road less rambled

Perpetual Groove
Dodging the great beyond: PGroove contemplates their place in the dizzyingly changing jam world.

“Perpetual groove” — hard to believe — is what the kids these days call jam.

But it’s probably the most convenient label for a slew of bands like, and unlike, the Athens, Ga.-based PGroove.

Some of these bands have about as much in common as wine lists at the Trophy Club and the Biltmore Estate. Nonetheless, the term has come to identify, in varying degrees, any postmodern, sorta-hippie rock act — many as antithetic as the “hamster running nowhere”-dubbed String Cheese Incident and Warren Haynes’ sweaty rock beast, Gov’t Mule.

Other bands bearing little in common with kind vibes and Jerry Garcia — Ween, for instance, and Primus — have also been herded under the jam-band umbrella. (Worth noting is Primus’ Les Claypool’s repeated appearances at jam cornerstones Bonnaroo and Jam Cruise, co-existing with his new mockumentary poking unrestrained fun at excitable jam-band fans.)

Coined and propagated by overworked, under-informed music critics in the years following Garcia and the Grateful Dead’s collective demise — and throughout the rise and fall of unlikely jam bastions Phish — the term tends to emit one of two distinct reactions. You either get long, murky tales of chemically altered concert bingeing, or a chorus of boos and organic-tomato heaving, the latter especially prominent from a number of local heavies, including several employees from nearby skateboarding, publishing and tattoo parlors.

This produce-tossing group, who’d rather eat cat litter than be anywhere near a 20-minute version of anything smelling of jelly, will be relieved to know that after something of a big-wave ride, the jam tide has receded.


Memories: still precious, just shorter

The increasingly rumored “death of jam” — a desirable outcome for some, an unspeakable tragedy for others — is still a premature diagnosis. Certainly not approaching its last rites quite yet, the genre and its constituency remain ever-changing. Perhaps most vividly, both are slowly getting older, and decidedly less obsessed with any single band or sound. This shift beyond “just jam” can even be heard in a band with such an overeager moniker as Perpetual Groove.

One of the most telling comments garnered for this story came from PGroove drummer Albert Suttle, the eldest member of the still-young quartet, who did a stint as an army percussionist before joining the band.

Suttle recalls that while chatting with the guys from progressive jam acrobats Umphrey’s McGee, both bands agreed, “if we’d had the wherewithal and the right timing to change our names, we both probably would have jumped at the chance.” (The Umphrey’s guys recognized that goofy monikers had begun to scream “jam.”)

Apparently even confirmed jam bands can get sick of being — or at least being perceived as — just that. This is true even when jam’s a big part of who they are, as Suttle, PGroove keyboardist Matt McDonald and guitarist Brock Butler all recognize.

The getting-sick-of-themselves thing — which, beyond the name crisis, is far from where Perpetual Groove currently resides — certainly did happen to both Phish and the Grateful Dead. WNCW morning DJ Kim Clark, caught playing one of Phish’s oddest tunes during a recent mid-morning set, notes that she first thought of jam as a genre when she started at the station in the late ’90s, a period she calls the “heyday” of jam bands.

Clark is quick to point out a shifting climate for jam at WNCW. For instance, Xpress readers’ favorite Uncle Dave and his pet “Dead Air” have drawn less support recently — at least in terms of fundraising — while Dave’s much briefer “4:20 Sharp” (aka “Tour Memories”) still gets glowing reviews.

This preference for a one-song “tour memory” over a four-hour jam gala signals a new restlessness among jam fans’ once-patient ears. Will Bradford of local band SeepeopleS observes: “The decay of the collective human attention span, becoming shorter every day, kinda works against jam bands.”

Clark also notes the perpetual curse, if you will, of most jam bands: their notorious inability to make studio records that transcend converted fan bases.

“From a radio perspective, jam bands have slipped just because there hasn’t been a band that’s turned in a really good, succinct record with succinct tunes,” she says. This may be nothing shocking — but it’s newsworthy coming from one of the few radio stations on the planet giving jam bands any airplay.

Other signs persist. Take Phish’s suddenly poppy and considerably less interesting Trey Anastasio, who’s currently opening for Tom Petty.

Or try Bonnaroo, an event even jam-phobic Rolling Stone identified as one of the “50 moments that changed the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” (It was, admittedly, last on the list, just edging out the revelation that Freddie Mercury was gay.)

But Bonnaroo, which mushroomed via fans of Widespread Panic, Phish and The Dead, has bit its feeders’ collective hand more and more these last two years. The 2006, sold-out line-up did feature Phil Lesh, but he was overshadowed by decidedly un-jammy icons Radiohead and Beck.

Asked to own up to his spurious assertion that Umphrey’s McGee were “odds-on favorites in the next Phish sweepstakes,” long-time Rolling Stone contributor David Fricke would not return our calls.

Jam preserved

Still, it’s not all bad news for Team Jam. And a band like PGroove — who, in mostly the best of ways, tastes a touch Phishy at times — has as good a chance as any of filling the void (though no jam anything appears bound for arenas anytime soon).

But jam was never about records — at least not successful ones — and as SeepeopleS’ Bradford notes, “nobody’s buying records anymore, anyway.” Nevertheless, jam bands still pack major clubs — if not stadiums — with great frequency. Consider PGroove’s continued success at the Orange Peel, where, this weekend, they’ll hold down the venue’s only two-night stand of the summer.

While many acts of their ilk are having trouble gaining new ground, PGroove somehow continues spiraling upward.

However, these “electronic rockers who like to improvise,” as Suttle self-defines, are shifting out of the jam shadow as well. Their upcoming album — the first since 2004’s surprisingly excellent All This Everything — is “more based on composition [than on improvisation],” keyboardist McDonald notes.

Accordingly, McDonald and guitarist Butler identify their latest musical turn as “dirtier,” influenced as much by the indie rock of Secret Machines, the New Pornographers and Wilco as by any dead fat men or washed-up Tom Petty openers. Butler, whose axe work and dreamy vocals anchor PGroove in many ways, also notes his perpetual fondness for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, something reflected in his own pillow-friendly singing voice and effective, if sentimental, lyrics.

If you’re not allergic to the dreaded hippie twirlers and some longwinded improv, you may find PGroove something like engaging (a superb light display is part of the show). Bringing together parts as disparate as lap steel, trance rhythms and the occasional sound byte from The Family Guy, the group emotes the best of what jam and even its granddaddy, jazz, still have to offer: a sense of adventure too grand to fit inside three minutes.

[Freelance music writer Stuart Gaines is based in Asheville.]

Perpetual Groove plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) two nights — Friday, July 7 and Saturday, July 8. 9 p.m. $12/$15. 225-5851.

The jam parking-lot dictionary (abbreviated)

If you’re diving headlong into the jam world for a little visit, a stroll through the nearby concert parking lot can serve as something of an educational experience. This pocket-sized reference — while by no means complete or meant to be taken seriously — should help you get started. Warning: Misuse or overuse of these words can mark you as a custy (see below), easy prey for more aggressive predator Wookiees (ditto) encountered along the way.

Custy: Newcomers to the jam scene, usually with too much money to spend, they often come decked out in an assortment of brand-new hemp jewelry and patchwork pants. The custy is a chief source of revenue for lot hawkers of all stripes.

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