Traffic Jam

For Gary Hartman, co-head of local independent promotion company Tapir Productions, the moment of truth came after the jam band String Cheese Incident played the Fabulous Satellite Lounge in 1998. "It was about their fifth show there," he says, "and they still weren't selling the place out. Then they went to Austin and sold out two nights in a row at Liberty Lunch. It was obvious then that we weren't going to see String Cheese in Houston again in our lifetimes. The whole phenomenon of bands playing New Orleans then Austin and skipping the fourth-largest city in the country on their way became painfully obvious to me."

Hartman and his Tapir partner, Alan Friedman, are devoted to improvisational music, be it straight-up jam band material or its many variants. "The whole idea of playing without a net and having the music be different every night is considered a good thing by some of us," says Friedman. Today several genres fall under the improv umbrella, making "jam music" an amorphous concept. It's easy to imagine standard jam acts like Phish or Widespread Panic sharing a bill with the groove jazz of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe on one extreme and the warped bluegrass of the Yonder Mountain String Band on the other.

How, then, can you tell if a band is a jam band? Listen, look and smell. If it's American roots music -- jazz, country, bluegrass, blues or rock-- stretched to the max, and the band allows you to tape the performance, it might be a jam show. If the air around you smells like the '70s -- a melange of patchouli and weed -- and there are vendors selling "tobacco accessories," bead curtains and scented candles, you're probably at a jam show. And if there's a drum circle between sets, you know you're at a jam show.

As of 1998, most of these events were passing the Bayou City by, and Hartman and Friedman weren't happy about it. Neither were they pleased with some of the venues in town, especially the Mucky Duck, which until recently had a monopoly on big-name touring bluegrass acts like Peter Rowan (whom Tapir has now booked twice for other Houston venues). "The Mucky is kind of an archetype of not really caring about the music," says Hartman. "It has a crappy sound system and there are cash registers ringing during the show…It's not the kind of environment I enjoy. He had the really hot bluegrass bands like the Del McCoury Band [coming again April 18] there, and we weren't allowed to dance, let alone tape, let alone have anything that even looks like a good time…"

So Hartman and Friedman decided to do something about it. Much like the similarly fed-up indie rock fans of the Hands Up Houston Show Collective, they started booking their own shows. Their Tapir Productions (the name refers to the fact that they encourage taping as well as to the piglike Amazonian critter) has in the last two years brought the David Nelson Band, the Yonder Mountain String Band, Two High String Band, the Slip, Ancient Harmony, Greyhounds, Peter Rowan, Tim O'Brien, Umphrey's McGee and Hanuman to dancer-friendly venues like Garden in the Heights, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, DiverseWorks and the Last Concert Cafe.

The Last Concert, which is widely known on the jam scene for its "kindness," has become the unofficial venue of choice for Tapir. The club will play host to two events over the weekend of April 20: a 420 Festival starring the Tony Furtado Band and Smokin' Grass on Saturday, and on Sunday, the Second Annual Space City Spacegrass Festival with Rowan and former New Grass Revival singer John Cowan.

"We book acts that you could see three nights in a row and only get a few repeats," Friedman says. "The spontaneity makes it interesting. We also try to book two bands on the same bill that either know each other or have some reason to cross-pollinate, and we've managed to get a lot of neat collaborations, where people will sit in on each other's set. And then you automatically get something that has never been done before."

Though the straight-up jam band wave seems to have crested, the bluegrass segment of the movement is red-hot. But how did the whiskey-soaked music of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers end up in such fragrant environs? Despite an association with the word "grass," what does this music invented by God-fearing, stern mountaineers have to offer the Ben & Jerry hordes?

"I think that a lot of the sense of bluegrass is that they like to play without a net," opines Friedman. "It's unique every time they come out. They take requests, they play what they feel like playing every night. That's what appeals to both the jam band crowd and the bluegrass crowd."

A certain hippie idol's flirtation with bluegrass didn't hurt, either. Jerry Garcia's 1975 Old And In The Way collaboration with Rowan, David Grisman and Vassar Clements did for bluegrass what Eric Clapton's 1974 recording of "I Shot the Sheriff" did for reggae: It exposed a world of new ears to the genre. "Old And In The Way was until recently the biggest-selling bluegrass album in history, which absolutely infuriates the bluegrass crowd," says Friedman.

Bluegrass is guarded by zealous purists who believe that the music should be played by only the traditional banjo-fiddle-guitar-mandolin-bass lineup -- and that solos should be short. The success of Old And In The Way, and the subsequent rise of the Newgrass movement and the jazz-inflected, extended solo-playing Bela Fleck are abominations to them.

"A bunch of hippies in their spare time made the biggest album in history," laughs Friedman. "A lot of us deadheads or retired deadheads or whatever you want to call us, we got our first taste of bluegrass through that album and we got hooked, and we started going out to hear a lot of the other stuff, and as we got older, we got enough money to start buying the albums and kind of made the natural transition through Grisman and the New Grass Revival, and we started to get this more jamming kind of bluegrass, and then we worked our way backwards to Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and the Osborne Brothers."

And that's where about four million sets of ears are now, as evidenced by the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Nevertheless, Tapir shows have yet to fully tap into the phenomenon. "We have this core of 200 people who do know our brand name, but it seems to have ossified at that number," says Hartman. "It's been very hard to reach a broader audience. It's been easier to get noticed by bands and band management than it has been to get noticed locally."

Given the "laid-back" vibe of the jam band world, one might expect that Hartman and Friedman are slackers: clerks at Smoke-n-Toke by day, jam band promoters by night or some such. Little could be further from the truth. Hartman, a lawyer and a librarian, runs the computer system at the UH Law Library, and Friedman, a rheumatologist, teaches and practices medicine at the UT-Houston Medical School on Fannin.

And since they both have such lucrative day jobs, neither has much interest in opening their own club. "Well, maybe we might like to do that, but I know our wives wouldn't like it," jokes Friedman.

But for those who don't feel well served by Houston's existing club infrastructure, for those who wonder why their favorite bands never come to town, Hartman suggests you quit your bitching and just go get the acts you want to hear. "It's a low entry-barrier business," he says. "If you have the enthusiasm and a little bit of time to devote to the business, it doesn't take very long to get a name out there. Pretty soon the band's pursuing you rather than the other way around."

Scuttlebutt Caboose

The newly founded Houston Academy of Radio, Television, and Music Artists (HARTMA) is working on the establishment of a Houston media hall of fame. ZZ Top, Mickey Gilley, B.J. Thomas and the recently trampled Lyle Lovett will be the first four musicians to be inducted, while Skipper Lee Frazier, John Lander and Hudson & Harrigan head up the radio enshrinees. HARTMA, which hopes to function as a scholarship-granting charity for media aspirants, is still seeking a location for the museum…If you need an excuse to guzzle a little whiskey this weekend, Racket is happy to oblige. Jim Beam recently announced that it furnished Clandestine singer/guitarist Jen Hamel with a $3,000 grant to promote her solo CD Fine Small Storm. If you wake next morning with a little tempest betwixt your temples, take comfort in the thought that maybe a fraction of the money you blew on Kentucky popskull will help Hamel send her press kit to somebody who will give her a hand.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax