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Five Great Jamband Lyrics

by Rob Slater on November 21, 2013

Every jamband naysayer you come across will tell you the same thing--the lyrics suck. While stating this so eloquently carries a certain amount of irony, they're right, sort of. Jambands have never been lyrically based, at least not right away. Sure, bands grow into themselves and their sound over time and thus learn how to craft a catchy line or two, but odds are their "classic" material isn't revered for its lyrical content.

However, there are those examples that disprove that theory. Because jambands can construct a lyric, and the lyrics are meaningful to the artist as well as the audience. Sure, the bread and butter is in the jam (pun intended) but there isn't anything wrong with tipping your cap to songs such as these that express the lyrical depth of some of our favorite musicians.

Umphrey's McGee: "Words"

As far as current lyricists go, Brendan Bayliss just might own the crown. This particular selection, a cut from 2006's Safety In Numbers, is one of his finest offerings. Bayliss has the gift of vagueness in his lyrics, leaving a certain amount of open-endedness to his words. This song, aptly titled "Words," personifies that as you can't figure out just what Brendan is trying to say, but you know whatever it is--it's pretty important.

"Your words occur to me sometime/align the reasons why we're here" is the type of helpless musings you'll find in this incredible Umphrey's tune. And sometimes it's okay to be obvious and direct, as you'll find in a line such as "could you pretend that you care just once for me?"

Phish: "Lifeboy"

Yes, the "and you don't get a refund if you overpray" bit is a little cheesy, but it wouldn't be Phish without a little wordplay. "Lifeboy" is simply stunning in so many ways--lyrics being one of them. This Anastasio/Marshall collaboration might rank as the duo's best, combining a helpless, fleeting feeling with a rare foray into religion. "Entangled in the remnants of the knot I left behind and asking you to help me make it finally unwind" might be the best line in any Phish song, and single-handedly squashes the "jambands can't write lyrics" theory.

Now, if only the band would play the song more often.....

Grateful Dead: "Help On the Way"

There isn't much to say about "Help on the Way" that hasn't already been said. It is simply a lyrical masterpiece. Even the more obvious lines (Don't fly away, cause I love what I love and I want it that way) have so much life to them. While the first two selections on this list took a darker spin, "Help on the Way" shows the light at the end of the tunnel, finding comfort in love and companionship.

"Making it too, without love in a dream it'll never come true" is quite honestly a perfect way to end this song as the band fades into the ending section.

Dave Matthews Band: "The Dreaming Tree"

There are few songs ever written that elicit the type of raw emotion that DMB's "The Dreaming Tree" does. Lyrically, Dave penned one of his masterpieces that are devoid of trite cliches that most DMB naysayers point to quite often. Anchoring the band's best record, 1998's Before These Crowded Streets, "The Dreaming Tree" tells a story of the loss of a child in the most poetic and heartbreaking of ways.

Lyrical examples include the heart-wrenching flashbacks: "She thinks when she was small, there on her father's knee, how he had promised her, 'you'll always be my baby.'" The song ends with Dave pleading "take me back" and "save me please." The whole song is full of lyrical genius, bouncing around between different emotions. The main character is struggling to deal with the loss throughout this song, and it makes for some powerful imagery and is backed by Matthews' classic growl.

Widespread Panic: "Barstools and Dreamers"

I imagine whatever bar Billy Joel was sitting in when he wrote "Piano Man" was the same one John Bell frequented when he wrote "Barstools and Dreamers," except the Southern version of that bar. With much more whiskey. Panic is one of the more underrated storytellers in the game today, and this song is a prime example of their lyrical ability.

The first few lines (The barstools built for dreamers/We'll fit fine and fine/All the worlds dreams have died/But tonight they're only taking thirsty people/Who've been pullin' on their drinks) include some stellar imagery and really paint the picture, as is the norm in Widespread Panic tunes. What separates "Barstools and Dreamers" is the chorus, where Bell really brings in the "Piano Man" similarities.

Heir to an open barstool, right there's one by "Mary the Fool"
Mary sees the bartender's knees
And she says that it's a bottle that she was born to be
And I say, "that's cool.. just right, right for a fool."
Thinkin' whiskey, she bought me a drink
I won't cross a word of what the lady thinks


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