The Allman Brothers
If there were ever a time to see the granddaddy of all jam bands, it should be this summer. This year, the legendary Georgia blues-rock band is marking its 40th anniversary and recently played a wildly successful run of shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre marking the occasion. Those gigs featured the band along with a slew of guest stars that constituted a “who’s who” of rock ’n’ roll, such as Levon Helm, Johnny Winter, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Trey Anastasio, Susan Tedeschi, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. The shows were so hot that the band’s fan club packaged them as a deluxe box set. The band will only play two dates in June (at Florida’s WANEE Festival) and none in July, since guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks and doing solo gigs then. But expect some explosive gigs when their summer tour kicks off in earnest in late August with a bunch of East Coast dates.
Sometimes it pays to take a risk. In early 2009, the Chicago sextet dropped its most ambitious album to date, “Mantis,” which challenged its audience with progressive arrangements and outré songwriting. The result? A slew of positive reviews (including a Critic’s Choice pick in the New York Times) and thumbs up from the band’s fan base, who made “Mantis” the group’s highest charting album ever. The songs from “Mantis” will make their live debuts on this tour, frontman Brendan Bayliss told me earlier in the year: “We never played any of this stuff live, and we’ve never done that before. But I feel like it’s all gonna be good live. It’s gonna open up. I could be totally wrong, but we’ll find out.” Come July, Umphrey’s trucks through the East Coast and the Midwest, with stops at the High Sierra Music Festival, the All Good Music Festival and the 10,000 Lakes Festival.
Every jam band fanatic knows now the former members of the Grateful Dead staged a wildly successful spring tour as the Dead. But now that the four surviving original members have gone their own ways, only tireless singer and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir will gig regularly this summer. Weir will play with his longtime band Ratdog, which will hit the East Coast in July and the West Coast in August and September. When I caught Ratdog in 2005 — a day before the 10th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death — the band played a moving set of originals, country covers and surprise Grateful Dead songs that had the capacity crowd in a frenzy. Excitement should be high again, thanks to the attention generated by the Dead tour, and the fact that Ratdog is a genuinely great live band.
Dave Matthews Band
It’s almost taken for granted these days how this band’s onstage forays into jazzy jamdom were once considered verboten for a commercial act. Credit Matthews and company for being able to blend both the pop and progressive sides of music and rolling it all into a pretty impressive career. That career received a near-fatal blow last year when saxophonist LeRoi Moore died after an ATV accident. But the band pushed ahead, finishing a new album, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” and recruiting new hornman Jeff Coffin. The first gig of their current tour got an ecstatic review in Entertainment Weekly, so the band seems to be rejuvenated, not dissipated. They’re also known for hosting a terrific array of opening acts, and this year they’ll be accompanied by Jason Mraz, Switchfoot, the Yonder Mountain String Band and G. Love and Special Sauce among others.
Keller Williams/Dark Star Orchestra
Keller Williams makes so-so records because his virtuoso guitar playing is far superior to his songwriting. But live, it’s amazing to watch him crank out complicated riffs with ease, then loop various sounds to create his one-man-band sound. And since live jam music is more about conjuring a good groove than crafting a great chorus, his songs actually work better when you’re dancing (or swaying) in a concert hall rather than sitting home listening. The Dark Star Orchestra recreates entire Grateful Dead shows on stage and is the kind of act that wows Deadheads and bewilders (or annoys) non-believers. So when these two artists play a series of shows together in July and August, expect the pairing to go down in jam band history. Williams’ showmanship and the Orchestra’s obsessive attention to musical history should make for a concert experience totally unlike anything else you’ll experience — this summer or any other.