I’ve been hitting a lot of folk music festivals this summer, most of which involve a weekend of shows and usually camping near the festival grounds. But, of course, a great outdoor festival is more than that. It’s sunburnt faces and children dancing in fairy costumes, muddy feet and intimate workshops with artists, pine needle naps and mosquitoes, BBQ and cold beer and bonfire smoke, live music until one or three in the morning, and then back to the campground to jam until dawn.
For musicians, these late-night, boozy jams can be all-important. Because more than during stage performances, more than in backstage kitchen tents, this is where mettle is tested and relationships are forged. For a young artist trying to break into a local (or even national) music scene, jamming is a chance to show her quality, and get to know some of the musicians and producers and general folks-about-town that she needs to know to advance her career. Impress, make friends, and she’ll find herself becoming a part of the music scene.
If she knows her jam etiquette, that is.
Jamming etiquette is a complex thing, particularly when you’re in a relaxed environment, and not an organized Sunday afternoon blues jam at the local pub. At organized jams, there’s usually a house band, and obvious rules that you can play along to, but at a freestyle party jam, etiquette becomes a bit more complex. Ironically, the very free and open nature of the event – with its myriad possibilities for intense emotional experience – make it all the trickier to navigate gracefully.
Here are some dos and don’ts for participating successfully in this type of jam:
- Hang back a minute until you get a feel for the jam. Are they just playing, or are they doing specific songs?
- Identify the jam leader, if there is one. Usually it will be a vocalist or guitar player.
- Be in tune.
- Be prepared with some cool jam songs. Many jams – particularly those with a jam leader – will go in a circle, letting each person start a tune.
- Be prepared for solo breaks. Eventually, someone will give you a nod or shout “banjo!” Go, man, go.
- Be sensitive to instrument noise levels. A banjo, saxophone, drum, or harmonica can really dominate a jam if the player’s not careful. On the other hand, it’s polite to pull back and play extra quiet when a mandolin or other delicate string is playing.
- Just focus on your instrument. You’ll miss the breaks.
- Try to impress by playing loud or soloing out of turn. This drives experienced jammers nuts!
- Try to make anyone stop to ask a technical question or make sure you’re doing a good job. It’s not that kind of party.
- Get over-excited about a chance to solo and go on forever. Watch the other players solo and get a feeling for how long you should play.
- Get too loaded and turn into the drunk shouting for “The Weight”over and over again.
- Become a jam nazi. Even if the night’s party coalesces around you, trying to control the jam all night will just make it boring for everyone else.
- Mess around with your instrument between songs. You can take a step back to tune up, but no riffing or passive-aggressive song “suggestions.”
- Get nervous that you’re in over your head. You can always play softly until you get into the groove.
Unfortunately, the intricate nature of jam etiquette can be a bit of a drag in and of itself. Many experienced jammers are set in their way of doing things, and it’s their way on the proverbial highway. But don’t get intimidated or jaded by the scene, just pay your dues, learn a few tricks, and soon, you’ll be sneaking off to start your own jam with a few like-minded souls.
The smoky, drunken remote country nights of summer might seem like a weird place to build industry contacts, but I’ve seen bands formed, tours planned, and producers on the lookout for talent at these types of jams. The festival jam is the perfect combination of party atmosphere and professionalism, creating a mulligatawny stew of career opportunities, particularly for the tactful independent artist.