MUSIC: Jamuary brings new spirit to jam culture, also jam

McGowan Family Band GigCity EdmontonOf course they’re going to be selling homemade jam at the jam band gig celebrating jam culture in Jamuary – Saturday, Jan. 25 at the Newcastle Pub featuring Edmonton’s preeminent jam band the McGowan Family Band and other like-minded jammy jammers.

Somebody’s bound to get the munchies there.

You can buy CJSR’s “Rad Staff Jam,” Nigel B’s “Magic Jam” and Amy van Keeken’s “Plum Raspberry Twang n Thangs Jam,” among others. There’s a jam tasting contest. Sales of the donated jams will go to paying the bands to jam. Mmm, jam.

Here we come to the green elephant in the room: The idea that jam band culture is nothing more than a bunch of pot-smoking hippies who have become unstuck in time, engaging in a lifestyle of freak flag-flying cos-play, a creative anachronism keeping alive the flickering flame of hippie culture sparked in the ‘60s. Does that make jam bands the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of the Museum of Gregorian Chanting? Not so, says Mark McGowan.

Along with long hair, beards, tie-dyed shirts and other tokens of hippiedom, marijuana has always been associated with this brand of improvisational rock music, he says – it’s “expanding your mind” to have more freedom of expression. With Mark’s brothers Paul on guitar and Sean on bass, and they all sing, the 15-year-old McGowan Family Band has a number of pro-pot tunes, such as Mary Jane or more recently Hey Mama (Can We Have Some Money for Some Weed?).

Stoned it may be, from time to time, but what the jam genre is not is stuck in the past.

“I sometimes wish I could’ve been born in 1955 and be a teenager in the ‘60s. That would’ve definitely been cool,” Mark says. “But you are where we are, which is why we try to bring the life back to these times. It’s not stuck in the past. It’s creating a new version of that spirit, continuing that sprit.”

McGowan Family Band GigCity EdmontonHe points out that jam culture is different now than when the Grateful Dead showed up to invent it. Obviously there were a lot of musicians “jamming” before that, but it needed rock ‘n’ roll and the aforementioned freedom of expression to create a real genre. More recent examples include Phish, Widespread Panic, the String Cheese Incident and a handful more. Not a lot of them pop up on the radar. Few get mainstream radio airplay. Most of them – including the McGowan Family Band – play shows that are never the same way twice. Hell, no song is ever the same way twice.

“We never get bored of it because it’s always different to us,” McGowan says.

Think of jam band culture as an amorphous blob, absorbing all in its path, and ever-evolving. Along with the obvious rock and folk influences, the McGowans freely play with jazz, blues, and reggae – a natural considering the sacrament of choice – and even hip hop. The band has been known to pull out the odd cover by Cypress Hill, the pothead’s rap group of all time. Rap music barely existed when hippies first showed up.

As for looking like a ‘60s hippie in this day and age, there’s room for anything, there’s an audience for everything and anything goes – all at the same time.

McGowan says, “Most people I know who have long hair and beards have a steady job. It’s nothing to do with being poor and dirty. It’s more about not caring what people think. You’re not here to please anybody else. You’re here to please yourself in the time you’re alive. That’s what matters.”

Opening the Jamuary show will be N3K and the Pigeon Breeders. Cover is $10 at the door.