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Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Jam Bands

See what group of shaggy legends managed to outrank Phish, the Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic

Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastacio

Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and Trey Anastacio of Phish

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty; Douglas Mason/Getty

This summer is going to be a bittersweet time for fans of jam bands. If the pain over the end of the Allman Brothers wasn't fresh enough, the Grateful Dead are now about to bow out with a series of farewell shows. Thankfully, Phish hit the road in late July, so all is not lost. With all this in mind, we asked our readers to select their favorite noodlers. 

Tabulating the results forced us to make some judgement calls. Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers received many votes, but they simply don't improvise enough at their shows to qualify. Led Zeppelin was a tougher call. They did have some songs that would stretch beyond 30 minutes and they did improvise in these moments, but the vast majority of their show was rehearsed and unchanging. In the end, they did not make the list, though other groups that were on the fence did. Feel free to voice your disagreements in the comments.

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Musician Al Schnier of the band moe. performs during the Vegoose Music Festival 2007 at the Hard Rock Hotel on October 26, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jason Merritt/FilmMagic)

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10

Moe.

The sudden end of the Grateful Dead left a lot of jam band fans without a group to follow around the country. This pushed Phish toward becoming a juggernaut of the road, but it also helped out smaller acts like Moe. The five-piece, which formed at the University of Buffalo in 1989, started seeing attendance swell at their shows around the mid-1990s. They go to great lengths to make sure every set is unique, mixing in originals with covers like "The Weight" and "Blister in the Sun." Check them out this summer at Mountain Jam and the All Good Music Festival. 

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British psychedelic rock group Pink Floyd during rehearsals for the group's show 'Games for May' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, 12th May 1967. The show featured an early experiment with quadrophonic sound. Left to right: Rick Wright, Nick Mason and Syd Barrett. (Photo by Nick Hale/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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9

Pink Floyd

We were initially unsure about counting Pink Floyd as a jam band. Their concerts from 1973 onward were fairly rehearsed, even if songs like "Dogs" and "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" ran for nearly 30 minutes. But during the Ummagumma period things were different, and in the Syd Barrett era they'd play marathon, improvisatory sets around London. They moved far away from this, but jamming remains in their DNA.

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Umphrey's McGee (Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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8

Umphrey’s McGee

Jam bands and prog groups have some of the most passionate fans in music. This six-piece from Indiana offers a perfect combination of the two genres, meaning they have a die-hard cult of supporters that allows them to play huge venues like Red Rocks even though most people have never heard of them. The unconverted simply need to see them live: Their Live at the Beacon Theater LP contains jaw-dropping renditions of "Where Is My Mind" by the Pixies and "Layla" by Derek and the Dominos.

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7

Gov’t Mule

If they ever get around to making a Jam Band Hall of Fame, Warren Haynes really deserves his own wing. The guitarist not only stepped into Duane Allman's Allman Brothers role in 1989, but in 2004 he essentially took on the Jerry role in the Dead. For a few incredible years he divided his time between both acts, and in spare moments he has toured and recorded with Gov't Mule. The group merges many of the best aspects of the Dead and the Allman Brothers, and they only seem to get better every year. 

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UNSPECIFIED - JUNE 01: Photo of Widespread Panic (Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Larry Hulst

6

Widespread Panic

There might be two kinds of people in this world: Those who are absolutely obsessed with Widespread Panic and count down the days until their next Red Rocks shows – and those who are barely aware such a band even exists. The group, which has been touring regularly for the past three decades, has never had anything resembling a hit, but their legendary live sets have made them one of the most successful touring bands of the past 20 years. Tragedy struck in 2002 when guitarist Michael Houser died of cancer, but Jimmy Herring joined in 2006 and has done an excellent job carrying on the legacy. 

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(L-R) Stefan Lessard, Jeff Coffin and Dave Matthews of Dave Matthews Band perform during Dave Matthews Band Caravan at Bader Field on June 26, 2011 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Dave Matthews Band)

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5

Dave Matthews Band

The Dave Matthews Band exist slightly outside the world of traditional jam bands. They had huge radio hits, a presence on MTV and, at least back in the 1990s, a huge audience of teenage girls. Many people come to their shows anxious to hear tunes like "Crash" and "The Space Between" and have little appetite for long moments of improv. But that is part of the DMB experience: The group works hard to make sure every show is unique and even the same songs are played differently from night to night. The amount of money they've made on the road over the past 20 years is just staggering, and it's easy to imagine that 20 years from now they'll still be at it. 

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UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Jack Bruce (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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4

Cream

The term "jam band" didn't really exist during Cream's brief run in the 1960s, but listen to their 17-minute rendition of "Spoonful" or their 16-minute version of "Toad" on Wheels of Fire. By any definition, those are jams: If the tapes had been running on a different night, they would have sounded different. Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker were all virtuosos at their instruments and their concerts remain the stuff of legend. They broke up in 1968, but in 2005 they briefly reunited for a series of shows in London and New York. The death of Jack Bruce ended any chance of more activity. 

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NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 01: Scott Murawski and Mike Gordon perform at Webster Hall on March 1, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

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3

Phish

Creating this list involved a couple of judgement calls, but not when it came to Phish. They are the dictionary definition of a jam band. Indeed, since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, they have emerged as the premier jam band on the planet. They're so massive they throw their own three-day festivals where they are the only group on the bill. Phans follow them all over the country, obsessing over old tapes and rumors of upcoming gigs. Trey Anastasio is going to spend a week or two this summer fronting the Dead at their final shows, which is really the ultimate honor in the jam band universe. 

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MACON, GA - MAY 5: Rock group The Allman Brothers (L-R) Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Gregg Allman, Jai Johanny Johanson, Berry Oakley and Butch Trucks sit on some rairoad tracks on May 5, 1969 outside of Macon, Georgia. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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2

The Allman Brothers

The Allman Brothers were such a powerful force that one of the two brothers died in 1971 and the group still lasted another 43 years. Duane may have been missed the vast majority of their run, but he laid the groundwork for everything that followed. Just listen to At Fillmore East: Live music just doesn't get much better than those insanely jammed-out versions of "Whipping Post" and "Mountain Jam." The lineup shifted around a bit, but fans flocked to New York every March to see the group's annual stand at the Beacon Theater. The whole thing ended last October, but Gregg Allman continues to play the music at his solo shows. 

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1960: Photo of Grateful Dead Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

1

The Grateful Dead

Could any other band have conceivably won this poll? Back when most rock groups played the same carefully rehearsed 25-minute show over and over for months on end, the Grateful Dead were playing two-hour sets that changed wildly from night to night. They often didn't even have a set list, choosing to simply walk onstage and see where the music took them. Jerry Garcia has been dead for nearly 20 years, but the surviving members have played together in various permutations ever since. It all ends this July at Chicago's Soldier Field, though the guys will surely be playing this music on their own until they drop.