After a long, strange trip ... all your indie faves are jam bands now

Indie rock spent the past 20 years learning to love the Grateful Dead. Now what?

Saturday night was almost over and maybe rock-and-roll was, too. Jim James was at Washington’s 9:30 Club, playing an entirely consuming, somewhat conventional curtain-closer of a guitar solo. Out in the crowd, people were throwing tight fists and big woo-hoos up toward the ceiling — cheering something that felt more comforting than exhilarating but still like both. It was 2019. The familiar and the unknown did a little dance.

Much of the music that James has generated over the past two decades — in the band My Morning Jacket and when he performs under his own name — feels familiar and unknowable by design. His songs always tell us where they’re headed without always revealing how they’ll get there. And in all of that improvisational electricity and heroic certitude, his music characterizes a wider transformation that has taken place in rock-and-roll across our young century.

Slowly, steadily, almost inconceivably, indie bands have become jam bands.

At first, it just seemed like the hip and the hyped confessing to tweenage dalliances with Phish or the Dead — the cool embracing the uncool, a public scrubbing of guilt from pleasure, a migration to the opposite side of the lunchroom. But genres are just invisibly fenced realms of aesthetic make-believe, anyway. Musical traditions? Those are real. So as indie-minded artists began adopting jam-minded practices, the riffs went loose, the mood went light and the solos went long. Few have jammed their live sets into the realm of pure, complete, off-the-rails improvisation, but the music has undeniably dilated into new shapes — new shapes filled with new meanings.

Twenty years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Indie rock (let’s say: everything that descends from the Velvet Underground) and jam band music (let’s say: everything that descends from the Grateful Dead) have traditionally felt incompatible, if not adversarial. Indie people are skeptical and fickle. Jam band people are undiscriminating and loyal. Indie is principled. Jam is chill. Indie scorns. Jam accepts. Yes, plenty of indie guitar heroes spent their respective ’90s stretching grooves out toward enlightenment — Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Yo La Tengo, Fugazi — but the difference between an indie band and a jam band still used to feel like night and day, oil and water, Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E.

Now, with rock music in cultural decline, jamming affords the indie-drifters of the 21st century someplace to go. But what’s being lost on that trip? And what’s being found? Are we witnessing rock-and-roll’s last great quest for something new to say? (Or are the white men that we’re primarily talking about quite literally removing their voices from the greater public conversation, replacing lyrics with guitar language?)

Listening back on two decades of indie-jam trans­mutation, the biggest question probably lies in the vastness of the sound itself. Are all these bands jamming toward infinity or oblivion?

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My Morning Jacket plays its first Bonnaroo

Of all the major American music festivals, Bonnaroo has always been the jam-friendliest — to congregants who embrace “jam” as a classification, a strategy or both. But by its second annual go-round in 2003, organizers had already initiated Bonnaroo’s stylish push outward, booking the Roots, the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth alongside the likes of Widespread Panic, the living members of the Grateful Dead and moe.

The most auspicious noise at Bonnaroo 2003 probably bled from the amps of My Morning Jacket, a Kentucky-born group that was just learning how to stretch its songs at such unsparing volumes, it felt like generosity. The band became a Bonnaroo mainstay in the years that followed, delivering a storied four-hour set there in 2008, and gaining serious muscle and momentum along the way.

But in 2003, James and his bandmates already seemed to be mainlining the same influences as the jam bands on Bonnaroo’s neighboring stages, channeling elements of the Dead, the Band, the Allman Brothers, maybe even a squirt of Parliament-Funkadelic. But instead of stirring that inheritance into a watery puree, the band’s amplifiers surged with burly grandeur. Every working band should know at least one magic trick for warding off the death of rock-and-roll, and that’s My Morning Jacket’s. When it stretches, the sound gets thicker.

Photo: My Morning Jacket performs at the second annual Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn., in 2003. (Jeff Kravitz)


Wilco lands on the cover of Relix

“It’s about acceptance,” Jeff Tweedy once said about “Sky Blue Sky,” the 2007 album that gently left-turned the trajectory of his beloved Chicago rock outfit, Wilco. “Basically trying to cope with the world as it is as opposed to the way you wish it to be.” Fittingly, the once-tortured songwriter was divulging this new philosophy to an interviewer from Relix, an omnivorous music magazine that had started as a Grateful Dead newsletter in 1974 and had just put Tweedy’s face on its cover 33 years later. If there was a moment when Wilco — a group championed for making heartland-rock feel something like high art — became more widely perceived as a jam band, this might have been it.

(Courtesy of Relix)

Musically, that notion of acceptance seems to guide the aerated arrangements and itinerant guitar solos of “Sky Blue Sky” — and every Wilco album that followed. Before this, even Tweedy’s most placid ballads shimmered with punk-literate toughness, but those angry sparks begin to recede here. This music feels more banal, and if you chose to squint at it, maybe more secretive. With “Sky Blue Sky,” Tweedy becomes a rock giant hidden in the capaciousness of his own songs. You have to listen harder for him.

Photo: Jeff Tweedy performs with Wilco at Bonnaroo in 2007. (Jeff Gentner)


Animal Collective samples the Grateful Dead

If you remember when the brightest psychedelic band of the 21st century formalized the bond with its spiritual forerunners by sampling the Grateful Dead’s “Unbroken Chain” for a 2009 tune called “What Would I Want? Sky,” you’ll remember that the gesture carried more heft than the results. (Both songs are just fine.) But Animal Collective still goes down in the books as the first samplers to receive the blessing of the Dead — which was funny, then and now. With so much bootlegged material floating around in the universe, it’s amazing that the Grateful Dead still felt so protective of its output.

Another Dead paradox: For decades, the culture surrounding the band remained astonishingly vast yet devoutly clannish — a balancing act that Animal Collective, despite dazzling attempts, never achieved with its following. The group came closest after 2009’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” an album that oozed fluorescent harmony over ancient rhythm. Like the Dead’s, this music was good for conjuring alternate realities, but it didn’t turn Animal Collective into a way of life. Today, that doesn’t feel like the group’s failure so much as society’s loss.

Photo: Animal Collective performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., in 2011. The band named its acclaimed 2009 studio album after the venue. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)


Woods’s ‘At Echo Lake’

“One of the most promising developments of the last year or so in indie rock has been the removal of the Grateful Dead from the blacklist.” So goes the opening thought bubble of Pitchfork’s review of “At Echo Lake,” the 2010 album by Woods, a Brooklyn troupe that jammed its way into a new decade with noisy impunity.

The media narrative surrounding these guys posited them as baby Deadheads, but Woods ultimately made jam aesthetics more palatable to indie listeners through its sound — a dry, lo-fi tumble that felt both harsh and twee, ramshackle and expansive. On top of that, Woods singer-guitarist Jeremy Earl was also running one of the most exciting and prolific indie labels at the time, Woodsist Records, a home for bands working in similar modes, including Real Estate, Moon Duo and Purling Hiss. With the release of “At Echo Lake,” everything about Woods — and Woodsist — felt promising.

Or not. Turn your ears upside down and it’s easy to imagine Woods on an expedition to rock’s most barren margins, attempting to scratch new life out of the dirt. These ambiguous jingle-jangles lean more toward dread than the Dead. On one tune called “Suffering Season,” Earl asks, “Who knows what tomorrow might bring?” The tremble in his voice seems to anticipate the worst.

Photo: The Brooklyn band Woods, whose label, Woodsist, put out some of the best and jammiest records in 2010. (Nicholas Haggard)


Real Estate’s ‘Days’

Some genres are adjectives. Others double as verbs. Indie is what you are. Jam is what you do. In the autumn of 2011, this band was and did.

Before the release of Real Estate’s “Days,” bassist Alex Bleeker told The Washington Post, “I don’t want ‘jam band’ to be a dirty word in the indie-rock community anymore.” Nearly a decade later, “Days” stands as the cleanest argument for a broad-minded, open-armed, good-faith merging of the two — everything sounding bright and slack.

Still, as immaculate as it feels, “Days” also serves as a reminder that indie and jam tend to merge most successfully on a one-way street. When a jam band as aesthetically promiscuous as, say, Phish covers an indie act as distinctive as, say, Neutral Milk Hotel, the song gets thrown into a food processor with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kool and the Gang, until everything liquefies into a Phish-like goo. When Real Estate leans toward jam, the reverse happens. A looseness seeps in, testing the music’s form and shape, allowing us to hear every song’s tensile strength.

Photo: Real Estate performs at Washington’s Black Cat in 2012. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)


Kurt Vile’s ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’

“Making music is easy.” That’s a line that Kurt Vile sings on his fifth studio album, “Wakin on a Pretty Daze,” but he was probably only kidding when he sang it, unless he wasn’t. Either way, shouldn’t making music be hard? On his 2011 masterstroke, “Smoke Ring for My Halo,” the Philly troubadour sounded as if he might cough out a couple rhymes and become the greatest rock lyricist of his generation, but keeping that up definitely would have been hard, and this album sounds easy, even when it sounds like Neil Young.

But unlike Young — who is always working like a dog in his jam-zone, always questing toward some impossible horizon — Vile jams without direction on “Pretty Daze,” soloing with no cardinal points, evading conclusions. Is that hard work? Maybe there’s some punk­ish defiance to it. Having no guiding principles becomes its own guiding principle. It’s Vile’s most frustrating and delirious album that way. His wheels are either turning or spinning. Making music is easy. Listening is hard.

Photo: Kurt Vile opens for Thurston Moore at the Black Cat in Washington in 2012. (Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)


The National curates the tribute album ‘Day of the Dead’

In 2016, any lingering dankness wafting over the reputation of the Grateful Dead was officially ­Febrezed away with the release of this protracted tribute album, curated for charity by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, featuring Dead covers from the War on Drugs, Bill Callahan, Hiss Golden Messenger, Angel Olsen, the Walkmen, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Courtney Barnett and dozens more. When Relix magazine wrote about it, the print headline was true poetry: “INDIE IS DEAD.

With 59 songs clocking in at nearly 5½ hours, the core Dead value being upheld here is muchness. How well do you want to know all of this music? How well do you want to know how well all of these people know all of this music? Beyond refurbishing the Grateful Dead’s image once and for all, “Day of the Dead” feels like an attempt to make something immeasurable feel just a little bit bigger, which is to say, it’s perverse.

Photo: The National performs at the Anthem in Washington in 2017. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson for The Washington Post)


Ryley Walker covers the Dave Matthews Band

Here’s a quiet genuflection posing as a loud stunt. It’s an album titled “The Lillywhite Sessions,” and it features an artful Chicago folk singer named Ryley Walker covering a batch of famously shelved songs by a jam-adjacent enterprise known as the Dave Matthews Band — and when it landed, despite Matthews’s unfavorable reputation in most indie circles, nobody really blinked.

That’s because Walker grew up listening to Dave, and he wasn’t ashamed of it, and this was an opportunity to record some sad, old songs with clear-eyed temperance, elevating one of Walker’s kid-passions to a position of grown-up dignity. Plus, he and his collaborators play so handsomely, practically dehydrating this sopping music with lucidity and precision. Unfortunately, those pungent, plangent, sweet-and-sour Matthews melodies refuse to evaporate completely. The stunt becomes a riddle: Can bad songs sound good?

Photo: In 2018, Ryley Walker released “The Lillywhite Sessions,” an album of Dave Matthews Band covers. (Evan Jenkins)


Vampire Weekend’s ‘Father of the Bride’

In 1984, Don Henley saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. In 2019, Erza Koenig found a way to transpose that sticker into “Father of the Bride,” the new album by Vampire Weekend. But only if you hear it that way.

“People reference the Grateful Dead or Phish in terms of this album, and I like the Grateful Dead and Phish, so I’m not trying to distance myself from it,” Koenig recently told Pitchfork. “But when I really think about a true moodboard reference, it wouldn’t quite be one of those bands.”

Does that mean the pendulum is already swinging back around? Is jam almost uncool again? Musicians are right to flinch whenever listeners use words to build walls around their ideas, and that’s probably what Koenig is doing here. But “Father of the Bride” still feels jammy in the sense that Koenig has swapped his band’s knack for concision with a leniency that makes his new songs feel easy-breezy, wishy-washy and mishy-mashy. It doesn’t feel pathfinding like jam band music, but it does feel permissive like jam band music. How long or strange can any trip become when it starts and ends on a moodboard?

Photo: Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend performs at the iHeartRadio Theater in Burbank, Calif., in 2019. (Rich Polk/iHeartMedia/Getty Images)

Chris Richards

Chris Richards has been The Washington Post's pop music critic since 2009. Before joining The Post, he freelanced for various music publications.

About this story

Editing by David Malitz. Photo editing by Hau Chu and Dixie D. Vereen. Copy editing by Beth Hughes. Illustration by Dave Kloc. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.