Three TDK D-90 cassettes were what got me hooked on to the Grateful Dead. I caught the Dead bug quite late. The band was formed plumb in the middle of the tumultuous counterculture years of the 1960s, but it was only around the mid-1970s that I first heard them. An older friend, who was in college while I was still in the final year of school, lent me the aforementioned tapes—two of them had the triple album, Europe ’72, recorded on them, and the third had a double album, Live/Dead. Weaned on a heavy diet of rock, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll, the music wasn’t like anything I had heard before. It was unpredictable and improvisational, but most of all it was life-changing. My taste in music changed forever and what followed was a lifetime of listening to jam bands: the Grateful Dead, of course, but also dozens of others that followed those pioneers.

Like many Deadheads, I too felt the emptiness after lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995. But there was no end to discovering new music from the Dead, whose recorded output far exceeded the official albums that were released. They were itinerant live performers who encouraged their fans to record every show they played and those bootlegged tapes are a trove that fans still dig into. Plus, there were the official soundboard recordings, released first as a series titled Dick’s Picks, named after the band’s tape archivist, Dick Latvala, and then, after Latvala died, as Dave’s Picks, after David Lemieux, another archivist. There was also the vestigial Grateful Dead; spin-off acts by bassist Phil Lesh; singer and guitarist Bob Weir; and drummer Mickey Hart. The surviving members also marked the 50th anniversary of the band with a series of performances, marshaling guest musicians, including Phish’s frontman and lead guitarist Trey Anastasio, to perform with them.

Post-1995, moping Deadheads could also turn to other jam bands that emerged in the Dead’s footsteps and played long sets, improvised, and fused and cross-bred genres. These included the Vermont-based Phish, of course, but also Widespread Panic from Athens, Georgia, the southern rock jam band Gov’t Mule, Colorado’s progressive blue-grass band The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, originally formed in Indiana, and many, many more. Old and young old Deadheads adopted these as their new go-to bands, following them around on their Dead-like frenetic tours or exploring their live recordings, which the Internet made easy to access.

The jam band scene today is livelier than it has ever been, and for this instalment of First Beat, here’s a pick of five new-ish bands to check out:

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are an eclectic improv band from Baltimore.Photo: Pigeonsplayingpingpong.com
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are an eclectic improv band from Baltimore.Photo: Pigeonsplayingpingpong.com

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong: Yes, that’s the name of this eight-year-old Baltimore, Maryland-based quintet that plays a brand of extended, improvisational music with a distinct hat-tip to old-school jam bands such as the Dead. Their music is characterized by long guitar riffs with delectable shredding and a spirited zeitgeist. The Pigeons have four self-released studio albums and one live album.

My album pick: The Great Outdoor Jam (Live), 2017. All seven songs are great but specially check out album opener Poseidon. And be careful, you could levitate.

Earphunk: A young New Orleans band, Earphunk oozes the soul, funk and upbeat party mood of that lively city. They call themselves a progressive funk band and are exuberant on stage and in their recordings. They’ve quickly garnered a die-hard following of fans, and with digital savvy have partnered with the direct-to-fan publishing platform BitTorrent Bundle, releasing their recordings themselves. On the band’s website (www.earphunk.com), you can stream and download their music in high quality for free.

My album pick: Comin’ Up, 2011. The standout track is Feel The Realness, an ode to the band’s hometown. If the keyboard riffs don’t get you tripping, the bass line will!

BoomBox: All right, there’s big bait for Deadheads lurking around in this band. Originating in Alabama, BoomBox are a duo, one half of which is Zion Godchaux, son of the Donna and late Keith Godchaux, former members of the Grateful Dead. Godchaux is an ex-DJ, and BoomBox’s sound is influenced by electronic dance music (EDM) and house—and there is a lot of sampling and sequencing in their compositions. But to that the band also adds layers of rock music and improvisation. BoomBox’s live shows are known to be unplanned, with the band deciding which direction to take depending on the audience response to their music.

My album pick: Downriverelectric, 2010. Expect to be tempted to dance. And be surprised by a version of Shakedown Street, the Garcia-Hunter composition from the Dead’s 1978 album of the same name.

Kung Fu: Think of what you would get if you took Weather Report’s jazz-fusion and mated it with modern EDM. Kung Fu has guitar, sax, drums and keyboard virtuosity but also the thumping pace of high-energy dance music. The curiously named band (their fans call themselves Ninjas) is a quintet with at least a couple of albums out and a growing band of devotees. Lead guitarist and frontman Tim Palmieri is a veteran of other psychedelic bands and sets the pace for the jazz-funk sound.

My album pick: Joyride, 2016. On the track Speed Bump Of Your Life, the groove quickly transports you back to the 1970s, when jazz-rock fusion reached its heights.

Papadosio: A quintet formed in the early 2000s, Papadosio are self-proclaimed space-rockers. Some try to pigeonhole them as an electronic jam band. But their sound has the heft and sweep of cinematic, orchestral music—delicate and acoustic at times; powerful and surging at others. Like most jam bands, they are best heard live, and their website has links to every live show they have recorded and released since 2013.

My album pick: 5.6.17 Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colorado. Put it on, sit back, and listen to all 13 tracks in one go.

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The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Porcupine’ from Pizzaz by Pigeons Playing Ping Pong

2. ‘Right Around Two’ (Single) by BoomBox (Donna Jean Godchaux)

3. ‘Sweet Nasty’ by Earphunk from ‘Sweet Nasty’

4. ‘The Bionic Man Meets His Past’ by Papadosio from ‘T.E.T.I.O.S.’

5.‘Hollywood Kisses’ by Kung Fu from ‘Tsar Bomba’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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