Jam bands are a strange phenomenon. Well, maybe not that strange. Get a bunch of wanna-be jazz musicians who like rock, funk, and pot in one place, and you’ll get a pretty close approximation of a jam band. They’re a common target of derision for the indie rock world, probably for good reason. I’ll admit to once upon a time (ok, junior and senior years of high school) being a Phish-head who was sad to never get to see the Dead. These days, I decry the fact that a local club has gone from booking punk rock bands to appeasing the Bonaroo and bong water crowd. It’s a sad state of affairs that has me crying myself to sleep on a regular basis. Why, then, do I find the music of Brooklyn’s Artanker Convoy so appealing? Their music probably falls squarely in the realm of vaguely funky, vaguely dancy, vaguely jazzy instrumental rock that all those hippies drool over. You have repetitive riffs, hypnotic grooves, percussive polyrhythms, some instrumental solos, and basically the kind of music that would go really well with a few bowls. If someone were to mention them in the same breath as, say, the New Deal, or any number of other bands whose names I don’t know, I wouldn’t flinch for a moment.
They are fundamentally different from those aforementioned jam bands for one simple reason: Artanker Convoy has a sense of history that allows them to transcend the masses. They’ve listened to and digested Arthur Russell, electric Miles (and not the bands that grew out of it), krautrock, and minimalism. When they groove, you can tell that they’ve done their homework and know where they’re going, not just aurally masturbating over their instruments. They carefully construct each block of music, using each instrument just enough to create a sense of flow and to fill out the space. One could call their sound organic, but I find that adjective to be tarnished by the misuse of reviewers and gushy fans; music should, of course, have a sense of growth and continuity to it, as groove based music is wont to do, but that does not necessarily mean that the music is alive. It is the imperceptible change that makes music organic, not its ability to make you lose your way within it. In C is organic; long funky jam x is not.
The most telling difference, though, is their choice of company. Artanker Convoy could have joined up with any number of funky brethren, but instead chose a label whose other artists are much more out there. How many jam bands that you can think of are labelmates with Gang Gang Dance, Eletroputas, Hall of Fame, and the Icewater Scandal? Implicit in this choice is a clear sense of moving beyond the regular tropes of groove music. They subtly bend the rules of the genre, distending a few notes into something much more drawn out. In that way, they fuse the experimental impulses of their Social Registry colleagues with a more popular/populist overall style. Which is why they can appeal both to punk rockers and jam banders alike. Just a few minutes ago, a self-professed Phish fan from down the hall knocked on my door asking what I was listening to and asking to copy it. Could the Convoy be the band, or one of the bands, to bring together the two (life)styles?