There are two types of people in the world: those who think that there are two types of people in the world, and those who realize that such categorizations are callous and oversimplified. So, as much as I realize my own hypocrisy in writing this, I’m going to write it anyway—There are two types of jam bands in the United States: bands who jam out their songs because they have a load of incredible parts to keep the songs fresh and winding into welcome new directions, and those who jam out their songs because they want to be a jam band. The latter are best typified by Widespread Panic, whose never-ending three-chord jams layered beneath wailing guitar solos are about as interesting after five minutes as watching mold grow on bread. If you’ve ever seen Widespread Panic sober, you’ll realize why everyone around you looks like they’re stoned. They are. And if they weren’t, half of them would say, “Man, this sucks.”
Harsh, but true. Then there are jam bands like Moses Guest, who understand that only a certain few songs are meant to be pulled and extended like a particularly stringy forkful of spaghetti. Still, Moses Guest draws comparisons to Widespread Panic, which is like saying that Woody Allen movies are comparable to Mel Brooks films because both are Jewish comedians.
Let’s jam on that analogy for a moment: See, Mel Brooks represents Widespread Panic. He sticks to what he knows, and if you like that kind of thing, it works. Woody Allen represents Moses Guest. He mixes genres skillfully, and less predictably.
It’s easy to pigeonhole Moses Guest as a jam band, but the label doesn’t really work. Many of their songs come off as alt-country infusions in which Allman Brothers-style guitars meet with lead singer Graham Guest’s Layne Staley-style vocals: Alice in Allman Chains. There’s also some weird, spacey stuff in the soup, as well as the occasional funk breakdown. Guest’s voice is infectious, but what really puts the band a cut above the rest is the keyboard work of Rick Thompson. Southern jam-rock pleads for masterful high-key crescendos, and Thompson packs a hell of a punch in this regard, making it easy to understand why he’s perennially nominated for Best Keyboard Player in the Houston Press Music Awards.
Guest is definitely an “upwardly mobile” group, having recorded the most recent of its five albums at Sugar Hill Studios with producer Dan Workman, who has done the trick for acts as varied as Destiny’s Child and ZZ Top. Despite the album’s slick production, the songs offer a glimpse of a raw energy that could only be amplified in a live setting. If you’re going to play with time signatures the way Moses Guest does, you’d better have some fine musicians in your band. Fortunately, Moses Guest has the talent required by its style. Each player’s past experiences add to a thickening of the musical plot. Drummer James Edwards brings a jazz background to the table, leading to a Guest rhythm that is alternately syncopated and 4/4 rock and roll. Bassist Jeremy Horton can lay the lines down thick, as he formerly did in metal and funk bands, but he has also learned how to step back with Guest. As for lead singer Graham Guest, he plays guitar and banjo equally well, and leaves ample room for Thompson’s key-roaming.
The songwriting is impressive too, which is the ingredient most often lacking in your typical jam band. Graham Guest is one of those rare rock performers with a master’s degree in philosophy. As much as his parents must have been annoyed when he put his schooling toward playing in a rock band, Guest’s education has paid off in his thought-provoking lyrics, which go far beyond what seems to be the main goal of many a jam band: to simply rhyme. That lyrics are important to Moses Guest makes them something of an anomaly in the jam world, where stimulation of the body through dancing has always held weight over stimulation of the mind through words. But again, Moses Guest doesn’t fit neatly under the jam umbrella, no matter how much jam fans may wish to fit round pegs into square holes.