STS9 | Riverside Theater | 21 September
When Phish broke up in 2004, the feeling in the jamband community was that some other band was going to have to step up its game and become the leading light of the scene. Just as Phish weren’t the new Dead, there couldn’t be a new Phish, but surely one of these up-and-coming acts in this burgeoning community could fill the gaping hole with something on that higher level of boundary-stretching, mind-expanding improvisational music.
It didn’t happen, of course. Five years of musical wasteland and I almost completely lost interest in the entire scene, and then Phish got back together and filled their own vacuum. And there was much rejoicing.
Pretend for a minute that you’re a naïve wook in 2004, though. In your mind, the top contenders to take over leadership of your world were: Widespread Panic, who were capable of legitimate jamming as if by accident on very rare occasions but were hamstrung by a painfully unimaginative drummer and a studied Southern-rock style that was tough to break free from; String Cheese Incident, who were like a bland, watered-down abomination for people who thought Phish were too scary; Umphrey’s McGee, bogged down by the structural constraints and general inaccessibility of their prog-based compositions and a contrasting penchant for unmitigated cheese; Medeski, Martin & Wood, who ran circles around the rest of the field but were frankly too well-respected in jazz and avant-garde circles to succumb to the hippie circuit for long; moe., who just kinda sucked for the most part; and Disco Biscuits, who I suspected were most likely to rise to the top. They had that mixture of silly/esoteric mythology, heavy drug culture, and unique improv strategies, segueing in and out of different parts of songs and stretching conceptual suites sometimes across several shows. Within their admittedly narrow stylistic spectrum, anything could happen at a Bisco show, and there were levels of appreciation depending on how deeply you’d gotten into them, which is a huge factor. Plus, they were one of the pioneers of incorporating EDM styles into their improv, which seemed to be the direction the kids were heading in those days.
I’m not sure what happened to that band. They seemed to get better and better every time I saw them, momentum building, and then they were playing fewer and fewer shows, especially around here, and then they virtually disappeared. In hindsight, they never had anywhere near the caliber of individual musicianship or personality of the guys in Phish—few do eh—but I still feel like they had way more potential than most of the other pretenders to the throne. They had some kindred spirits on the jam-tronica (ouch) (I preferred the term “electrojam” which in hindsight is perhaps just as cringeworthy) tip, though: Sound Tribe Sector 9. STS9 was admittedly not super ambitious on the improv front, maybe because these guys didn’t have the kind of instrumental proficiency normally required to reach the upper tiers of the Bonnaroo (back when it was Bonnaroo) clique. What they had were a bunch of awesome, infectiously danceable songs, and a sound that was fresh and futuristic and extremely dynamic, with enough variation between performances to garner a following and keep the word spreading.
At its peak, I’d say STS9 was a top-five live band for me, even though I still only know the names of a handful of songs. The heart and soul of the band was Murph, the bass player in charge of banter and clearly the leader. He wasn’t some technical wizard but he was good, and he always got the crowd amped up in an endearing way. Until he didn’t.
My last real glimpse of Murph was easily the worst STS9 show I ever saw. Being only a part-time fan (Phish was back together, after all), I wasn’t aware that he had become a self-caricature, interjecting obnoxious hype-man nonsense constantly throughout the show, generally making an ass of himself and sabotaging what might otherwise have been a perfectly good concert. The hardcore fans had already adopted “SHUT UP MURPH” as a communal mantra, which became more and more appropriate as the show wore on. It was pretty sad.
That was September of 2011 (note: I saw at least a portion of STS9’s set at Summer Camp in 2013, but it hardly counts because well I can’t tell you anything about it). I pretty much lost interest at that point. About two and a half years later, they kicked Murph out of the band. I’m not sure if it was explicitly stated, but it seemed to be an accepted fact that drugs were the reason. A lot of fans seemed thrilled, or at least relieved. I couldn’t even conceive of STS9 without Murph; the rest of the members had always seemed pretty replaceable to me. My attitude, whether I realized it or not, was that the band was destined to limp along in the shadow of its brief but heady glory days.
It’s not that I refused to see STS9 with new bassist Alana Rocklin; it just never worked out and wasn’t a high priority. After most of my STS9 buddies moved out of Wisconsin, I pretty much figured well fuck it. I am perfectly content letting STS9 be a thing of the past. They probably suck now anyway.
I was wrong!! O how I now lament having missed all those, well, handful of nearby shows over the past five years. People said Rocklin was a way better bassist than Murph—they were right! I didn’t realize she had been pulling STS9 in a jazzier direction; not only does she have the chops for it, but she seems to have brought out a new side of keyboardist David Phipps as well. The Murph-fronted band quite honestly never displayed the kind of improvisational chops I witnessed at the Riverside this year, at least not when I was present. But it’s not like the band’s style has really changed; they cranked the same massive EDM-style crescendos as always. We danced the night away.
If there was something missing, it was that dark, woozy undercurrent that I remember from my favorite 1.0 shows, but it could’ve just been that they didn’t play any of my old favorite songs. In truth, I wasn’t really missing that feeling. The thing about STS9 back in the day was that Murph was hardly the only wastoid on the scene; even ‘90s raves and Phish 2.0 didn’t feel as blatantly seedy and drug-centric as the STS9 scene at the height of its popularity. This 2018 crowd seemed much more benevolent and lucid—feel free to read that as “old” if you need to. Sure, still plenty of white people in dreads, plenty of drugs I’m sure, but I never felt distracted from the music. I think it was the negative crowd energy as much as anything that drove me away from STS9, and it was really refreshing to not feel that.
I don’t think it’s an artist’s responsibility to police their fans, but in a way, I think STS9, whether inadvertently or not, has done just that, for the betterment of everything about the scene. It may have come at the expense of a portion of their audience, though. Any band that carries on without its iconic frontperson is destined for an identity crisis, and STS9’s may be ongoing. The key, though, is that Murph wasn’t the singer; he was just the default frontman, and the more into that role he got, the worse the band became. Whereas Rocklin didn’t try to step into that role; there is no leader, now, and there doesn’t need to be. I’m being presumptuous here, but I think most of the members of STS9 always wanted it to be solely about the music, and now it is—I wanna say “again” but I don’t know. I wasn’t there in the beginning; they’d been kicking around for eight years or so already when I first saw them in 2006. I can’t even assess their new songs versus old; all I know is the music made me dance, and without ever triggering my critical brain the way all jambands do. Just one show and already I’m hungry for more.