Harmonic Convergence

Rolling down the road or jamming in cyberspace, Jiggle the Handle has tuned in, and turned on to a collective wavelength few bands ever find

by Lee Abraham  

The rock and roll highway takes no prisoners. Bands either hack it or they don’t. Even in the best of times, spending day after day in a hot, sweaty van with your bandmates has a way of frazzling nerves. Forget about it if a gig doesn’t go well. Personality conflicts and infighting fueled by van-fever, money problems or just flat out musical mediocrity, whatever weaknesses a band has, will be put to the test on the road. The flip side - if a band is gonna catch a creative fire, there’s nothing like touring to ignite spontaneous combustion.

"I can’t write tunes at home. I only write on the road," says Chris Q, bass player for Jiggle the Handle, a freewheeling Boston based quartet of tour-happy jammers. "I think it’s all the traveling. You meet all these weird people and see all these incredible places. That’s where I get a lot of my inspiration from. Plus when we’re on the road, traveling together we’re such a close knit unit that things just develop."

Like Q , the whole band is on the keep-the-van-moving-keep-the-band-grooving wavelength. "A big part of the new record for us is that we’re all in very similar places in our lives right now," says Q. It shows. "In it Again," is Jiggle’s 2nd CD and it’s a studio gem. Most of the material for the new record was written on the road during last year’s summer tour. Not only are the individual songs outstanding, each a glimpse into the many musical directions the Jigglers can navigate an improvisational jam, "In it Again," is an exceptionally cohesive -album-. From the immaculate production and perfect flow between songs, to the captivating musical dynamics and intelligent, thematically interwoven lyrics, "In it Again," is more than just a collection of tunes, the darn thing is a five star, studio masterpiece.

The fact that Jiggle has created such a powerful listening experience comes as no surprise. Put simply, Jiggle the Handle is a jamband supergroup. Founding member Gary Backstrom on guitar and vocals has been working the Jiggle gig for almost a decade. For years the project suffered from non stop personnel changes, surviving only because of Backstrom’s vision and determination. The current lineup began to take shape in ‘96, when drummer Greg Vasso joined Jiggle after a five year stint keeping the beat for legendary East coast band, Max Creek. During the sessions for Jiggle’s debut release in ‘97, "Mrs. White’s Party," a change in keyboard players brought renowned ivory stroker, Paul Wostencroft, formerly of "Planet Be," into the fold. When Q entered the mix about a year later after a seven year run with "Hypnotic Clambake," one of the more exotic outfits on the jamband scene, the band Jiggled like never before.

"When Q came on board that’s really when the band started," says Vasso. "He brings a wide variety of influences from bluegrass and funk to jazz that can really get out there." Q’s diversity -was- exactly what JtH needed. Edgy fusion, open road blues, booty fresh funk, post-bop cool, straight ahead rock and roll or mango drenched island grooves, whatever the case may be, with Q in place, these guys are ready to, er, handle anything. That stylistic liquidity has always been a priority for Backstrom as he was putting the band together.

"First and foremost he’s a ripping guitar player," says Vasso of Jiggle’s elder statesman. "Gary has a great lightheartedness, a genuine cat that loves music." That mixture of technical prowess and personal aura was also the key when the Jigglers needed a new keyboard player. "Paul is the schooled guy out of this band," says Vasso. "He’s into composition and getting all the parts of a song happening together, as well as the vocals. That’s an area we put a lot of energy into."

The energy investment has paid dividends. Individually and in harmony, Jiggle’s vocals are as enjoyable as their music. "In general, it’s been the history of jambands, even from way back when, that vocals have been less emphasized in favor of virtuosity on your ax," says Vasso. "We’d like to do both." They do. Very well in fact. Aside from sheer natural talent, it’s no secret that at least some of the Jiggler’s success comes from good old fashioned hard work. Everybody takes voice lessons. They all study, formally or informally, everything from their own instrument to music past and present in pursuit of being the best Jigglers they can be. That commitment to the band extends beyond the music.

Offstage, they all play a role as well. For his part, Vasso, nicknamed "Palmtop" because he’s rarely found without his handheld computer, tends to be the most "business oriented" of the bunch. "The jamband scene is starting to get recognized as a legitimate thing. And it’s also starting to be recognized as a commercially viable thing," says Vasso. Not only is the scene itself becoming increasingly marketable, the top bands, including Jiggle, are been contacted with increasing frequency by record labels and other industry types looking to get in while the gettin’s good. "We aren’t in a rush," says Vasso about Jiggle’s business plans. "We’re letting things develop organically. Right now we are just trying to keep it growing. I’m confident that as much as the music and the band grows, with the scene growing the way that it is, that stuff starts coming to you versus forcing it. We’re just trying to let it happen and let the music do the talking." Good plan. Jiggle’s music speaks eloquently. And if the current trend is any indication, prolifically as well.

Not only do they have the new CD, another 24 minutes of live Jiggle was recently released on "3 Sets," a compilation CD put out by Lauan Records that also features "Day By the River," and "Vinyl," a couple of the other premier jambands currently on the scene. Plans are already in the works for Jiggle’s next release - a live CD that will be recorded on July 22nd at the Stone Coast Brewery in Maine. As if that all that activity isn’t enough, when they return from their current five week tour in their newly acquired, converted airport shuttle bus, they’ll be "jigglecasting" one of their upcoming rehearsals over the internet. That’s nothing new. The "Virtual Venue" at their website (jigglethehandle.com) has turned several rehearsals over the past couple of years into cyberparties with live audio/visual, as well as chatting among fans who can also send requests or comments to the band.

As the scene grows, both in cyberspace and here on planet reality, so is a sense of community among the jambands. "The network of bands communicating with each other and helping each other out is increasing. Which is very cool," says Q. "Bands come to Boston and we help them out and then they’ll turn around and help us out when we travel through wherever they’re from." Travel, travel, travel. That’s what it’s all about for these guys. OK fine, so what the heck is out there? "The southeast kicks ass!" says Vasso without hesitation. "The Pacific northwest seems to be catching on. The grunge aftermath is fading and the jamband scene is starting pick up. Of course, our home turf, the northeast is better than ever!"

And what about the West? Last year Jiggle played Las Vegas for the first time. This year, fresh off a return engagement at the High Sierra Music Festival, Jiggle is back in the neon city to play an outdoor show at Wet and Wild. Locals looking forward to a full day of music, sun, fun and watersports aren’t the only ones excited about the show. Vasso won’t need his Palm Pilot’s daily planner to remind himself about the gig. "I’m like a water park fiend ever since I was a little kid and when we came to Vegas for the first time last summer and I fell in love with it," says Vasso. "So the combination of the two is like the highlight gig of the tour for me. I’m psyched!" ###