Author: Campbell, Bruce

Variations on a theme

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot more going on in the bluegrass world during the middle of the year. The weather is nicer, more bands are on the road, so the choices of bluegrass related activities are many, and deep. On a given weekend, you can go to outdoor festivals and see lots of great acts, and jam every other waking moment.

Once autumn comes to an end, though, you can find yourself having some bluegrass withdrawal symptoms. But just as the squirrel uncovers some buried cache of acorns, and a deer kicks aside the snow to find some yummy lichens (a phrase never before uttered, I think), you can find good bluegrass fun, whether your into just listening, or playing, or both.

California winters lend themselves well to jam sessions. They’re cold enough so you appreciate being in a warm room with your friends, but the weather’s not so awful you hesitate to travel. Your circle of bluegrass friends may host jams at their homes from time to time, but there are also a lot of regular public jams that are worth checking out. Just check the CBA Calendar to find some of these near you.

There are two other interesting variations on the public jam I’d like to bring to your attention. Both variations are somewhat unique, I believe, but the format has the potential to be implemented at other venues if someone is interested in doing so.

One is the “Invitational Jam”. The prototype for this is the now legendary “Taco Jam”, held each week at the Baja Taqueria in Oakland, hosted by Tom Lucas. Originally, it was just a weekly open jam, but competition from another jam on the same night, plus limited room, caused the proprietor to cancel the event. Then one local musician hit upon a great idea, and proposed THIS to the owner: Why not have an “Invitational Jam” where each week, there are five musicians, handpicked to fill out a bluegrass ensemble and have them jam?

It worked like a charm – not only is it a gas to play in this jam, it’s a fun event to watch as a spectator as well. It sounds exclusive, but it’s not, really. Participants are expected to be proficient enough to suggest and lead a song when their turn comes around, and have enough improvisational skill to catch on to an unfamiliar song. It has become so popular, that invitations for it are rarely sent out – available slots are booked well in advance. Learn more about this interesting event at

The formula has worked so well, that a second, monthly “Jamvitational” (a/k/a the “TamJam”) has cropped up in Marin County. The Taco Jam site has links to that event as well.

The second variation is a combination of jam session and open mic event held monthly in Martinez, at Armando’s nightclub. The format is based upon a very successful “blues jam” they also have there. It’s more open mic than jam, I guess. The way it works is this: The venue provides a core “house band” that can provide competent back up to whoever signs up for the open mic, whether they’re a solo performer, or duet, or whatever. Then each act gets about 3 songs on the stage (which features pro sound, and pro lighting).

The organizers run through the list to get everyone a chance, but they also mix and match performers to keep the onstage mix interesting. Two interesting dynamics occur – the performers get a real sense of being “onstage”, and simultaneously adapt to the backing band they are provided with. When it first started, I wondered if some performers would wilt under the pressure, but the opposite has occurred – they all seem to rise to the occasion, and put on performances that surprise themselves and delight the audience. This event is held the 4th Wednesday of the month (except this month, due to Thanksgiving), and it’s a wild ride – if you’re interested in attending as a performer, or a spectator, let me know at – I’ll make sure you’re in the loop. Or you can check Armando’s website at

These two variations show how, with a little energy and imagination, we can find new ways to share bluegrass music and provide entertainment to some folks who didn’t necessarily expect it!

Posted:  11/18/2009

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