Listeners can set a broad range when it comes to defining a jam band. Certainly the bands defined as jam bands today were influenced by the adventurous live (and studio) jams of classic rock bands such as Cream, The Allman Brothers Band, Ten Years After and, of course, Grateful Dead. When it comes to unrehearsed, improvised noodling that goes past the 5-minute mark, there can be a far range of rock bands that fall into the category.
But as the jam band spectrum evolves, which bands have been the most successful, and why? Well, let's take a look.
Many of the reader polls online have Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band at the top of lists. But as far as more contemporary artists, it seems to be the Dave Matthews Band. Amazon lists an outlier with The Black Crowes' Greatest Hits 1990-1999: Tribute Work in Progress as its top-selling jam band album. Currently, this is the retail behemoth's most popular product based on sales, but the data is updated regularly and right now fans of The Black Crowes are excited about their reunion, no matter how brief. When you do scroll down, though, album releases from more contemporary acts like the Derek Trucks Band, Blues Traveler and the String Cheese Incident's On the Road series are in the Top 20.
Reader votes on mainstream sites, from Rolling Stone to Ranker, have Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band leading the pack, but Phish, Widespread Panic and Gov't Mule are all right there in the Top 10.
But the real success is from touring; the live show is a jam band necessity. The site Salon concluded that jam bands are smarter than the average band because "they made the pointless concert album all but obsolete." It's not just the surge of livestreams and loyalty of concert attendees; Jam bands have made steady revenue from producing concert albums like the aforementioned On the Road series, or the Grateful Dead archive of Dick's Picks or Road Trips, because the live album (or set) becomes a must-have gem, whether the band is active or not; it captures a moment in time for those who did not attend a particular concert and a souvenir for those who did. And with a jam band, every concert is different.
Dick Pick's Volume Eight appears to be a favorite amongst jam band aficionados, for instance. Volume Eight covers all (save for one song) of one the Dead's most popular nights on bootleg (until Dick's Picks came around): May 2, 1970 in Binghamton, New York at Harpur College. Binghamton's a favorite spot for Grateful Dead followers anyway, and what happened that night was close to magic. Disc one opens with an outstanding acoustic set — "Dire Wolf," "Black Peter," "Uncle John s Band" — just prior to the release of the album Workingman's Dead that Deadheads still rave about. And disc two and three present a very electric Dead with a version of "The Other One" as a 40-minute medley being jam band nirvana.
In the more contemporary jam band camp, String Cheese Incident should be noted for the success that they had with their On the Road series, where almost every one of their live shows were recorded from the soundboard. What first started out in 2002 as three CDs in a cardboard case developed into a real collectible packaged with more care. Within a few years or so, the band sold the shows exclusively online, while choosing select shows for a CD package. Now that the band reunited with a new EP, can we expect more of the same? We will soon find out.
The examples can be never-ending. From Phish's The Baker's Dozen, which covers a milestone live event at Madison Square Garden to the always sought-after Bear's Journal at the Fillmore East, February 1970 by The Allman Brothers Band (released in limited edition pink vinyl for charity), there's a great amount of releases to choose from. And you can start your album collection by going to the jam band section of the Goldmine store, curated by the editors (see banner below).
Bottom line: Live concerts captured on vinyl or CDs is the secret sauce for the success of a jam band, big or small, with historical or current dates.