This year, HeadCount will take a deeper look at the people who make and report the news in Washington, D.C. — and we’re talking to them about (what else?) music. It turns out that the people who shape the political landscape are as passionate about music as they are about politics. We’ll be talking to them about the bands they love and the shows that changed their lives.
Our first subject, Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) covers Congress for Politico. Jake is a rising star who has made his mark in Washington through sheer hustle. During the tense budget deliberations at the end of 2013, Jake was the go-to reporter for the latest details and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the final deal. According to Jake's bio on Politico's website, he "listens to an unhealthy amount of Grateful Dead and Phish," and constantly makes shoutouts to his favorite bands of Twitter. In other words, our kind of guy.
HeadCount: Before we get into band specifics, describe – as someone who sees shows nationally and as a hard core fan – the overall state of the live music scene in America today. Do you agree that it’s as vibrant as ever?
Sherman: It’s incredibly vibrant right now. There are a few interesting dynamics. First you have the Dead scene. Most impressive to me is Phil Lesh’s ever-expanding world. He’s bringing new players into the fold constantly — Neal Casal, Jackie Greene, his son Grahame and people like that. He’s playing great music and what he’s created out at Terrapin Crossroads is nothing short of remarkable.
Bobby [Weir] is still kicking it and I’m excited to see what he’s up to this winter. Phish is playing out of their mind right now. The band is better than ever, and that’s keeping us Phishheads into things. But you also have an emerging bluegrass jam scene, which is kicking ass. People like Fruition, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass. All awesome. Allman Brothers are still making their rounds, Warren [Haynes] is expanding his horizons, Derek [Trucks] is playing great stuff with his wife [Susan Tedeschi]. No drama – just great music.
A lot of longtime Phish fans think this past summer was as good as the band has sounded ever. Do you agree?
I do, and I love what they’re doing right now. Their playing is spot on and taking things out into a level that is so much different and better than I’ve ever seen. I’m a relatively latecomer to Phish, saw my first Phish show in 2004 in Brooklyn… and I have seen 40 of my phish shows since 2009… and the new stuff they played on Halloween in Atlantic City is the most mature, tightest, material I’ve seen. The jams are on point, meaningful, creative, and I’ve hardly been able to take the AC show out of my rotation.
When they came back in 2009, summer of ‘09, ‘10 and ‘11, I went to see them a bunch: Alpine Valley, Deer Creek, San Francisco — everywhere I could go. But this year it just seems like they’re firing on all cylinders, and the communication between the band is so tight. Part of it is age and maturity, and Mike Gordon said it recently: Phish isn’t their entire life right now. It allows them some freedom in expressing themselves collectively, and they don’t have to bare the same burden. They’re listening better; pivoting off each other better… it’s a maturation process, and it’s a great thing as far as I’m concerned. They’re doing what my father — who got me into this scene — calls jamming within a song. Trey isn’t popping off with 20 minutes of playing the same guitar loop. They’re building on the song, and the product that comes out the other end is awesome.
How are Phish and the Grateful Dead different, in your view?
One of the reasons Phish and the Dead are so different is because Jerry [Garcia, of the Grateful Dead] didn’t need to be the overpowering force in a jam — he could be, but didn’t have to be. Even when he’s playing very powerfully and intricately you can still hear other members of the band so clearly, in a prominent manner — during the Keith era, Brent era, Vince era — all the way to ’95. It was always that way with Jerry.
Trey doesn’t have that luxury, generally. He’s a very overpowering player — in a good kind of way — but now in this mature stage of Phish he seems to have dialed it down a notch, letting others come through. A perfect example is the Tahoe Tweezer over the summer: a 48-minute long extravaganza, where the entire band shone through.
The recent Hartford Tweezer I saw — another example of getting to a new place. And a new song, Twenty Years Later from Reading this fall — still another example of taking the music to a new place and didn’t always have to involve Trey. No question, they’ve reached a new level.
You mentioned you caught the 10/31/13 Atlantic City show. What did you think of Wingsuit, both musically and as a musical costume?
I was initially disappointed because I’ve only been to one true cover Halloween show, and that was the Little Feat “Waiting for Columbus” in 2010. But the more I listen to it, the more I like it. There’s a lot going on there, musically. It just blows me out of the water.
A lot of times I’ll see a show and not really appreciate the nuances until I give it a listen several times. That was the case with Wingsuit — and everyone I know agrees. You can tell it was written by the entire band, not just Trey, everybody kind of has a starring role, and it’s just out of this world.
It seems the band is settling into some traditions and "Go-To’s" with their touring. Dicks on Labor Day Weekend. The MSG run for New Years. Halloween in AC. This a good thing?
Yes, and one of my biggest qualms with the Phish community is hearing complaints about those routines. They’re playing right now, and that’s a lot more than we had in 2005 through 2009. They’re healthy and they’re playing, and that’s all that matters. I’ll take whatever I can get.
I’m partial to Atlantic City, actually. I’ve seen Phish there seven times. AC is a perfect Phish town. It's seedy, a little weird and offbeat. It's near New York City, it's near Philly and its near DC — centrally located in a heavy Phish fan region. And now United is starting flights from Houston and Chicago to Atlantic City, so things will get even more bizarre. It’s gonna be awesome.
Whatever they have to do to keep this alive, I’m for – I don’t care; however the band wants to do it to make it easy on them travel-wise. The deal Peter Shapiro made with Phil to play shows [at the Capitol Theatre] in Port Chester and the new Brooklyn Bowl in London is all part of this general logic: make it easy to help keep it going and make it accessible in a way that’s enjoyable for the band and enjoyable for us as fans. My brother is going to school in London right now, and I have a great excuse to go see Phil at the London Brooklyn Bowl when it opens.
Shifting to the Grateful Dead, what specifically are your favorite years and eras of the band?
I love the mid-late '70’s stuff that everyone else loves, but I have a real love for ’89 and ’90. Jerry was healthy, Bobby was sounding great, Phil was totally on top of things and I think Brent was awesome. There was never a better time than ‘89-‘90 to see how dialed in Jerry and Brent were to each other’s stuff. I’m not sure what makes it so great, and why I love ’89 and ’90 so much, but it’s probably the health of the band, and that obviously matters, especially when it comes to Jerry. But Brent is one of the driving forces, and I can’t get enough of it.
When you go to archive.org to select a show to listen to, do you like to peruse the variety of high quality audience tapes that might be available for that particular show? Or do you go straight for the Charlie Miller soundboard if it’s available?
I go right to the Charlie Miller soundboard (laughter). I first look at “this day in Grateful Dead history” and cross-reference to find the Charlie Miller soundboard. You always know what you’re getting. It’s consistent quality.
The Grateful Dead were, and the founding members remain, very modest when it comes to taking any credit whatsoever for the explosion of improvisational jam band music in America. Are the Grateful Dead being too modest in regard to their musical legacy?
Yeah, they are. But I also think they need to get credit for not just creating the genre, but expanding it with Phil Lesh and Friends and RatDog — both of which create incredible music; incredible Dead-music with a contemporary twist. I mean, RatDog is like this big party, like a jazzy dance-party thing.
The Dead definitely influenced Phish in a big way, there’s no question about that. They started off playing Dead tunes, and Allman tunes.
But I could make the case that modern Phish is much closer to Zappa than it is to the Grateful Dead. And that’s good, the music has evolved.
Same with Umphrey’s — yes, they jam, and the Dead, in some ways, started that. But I don’t hear any Grateful Dead in their jamming. Same with moe. So overall, yes, I think the genre and the format and the guts and bones are the same, but not the overall sound. But that’s a good thing — it allows you to expand your horizons.
What other bands to do you listen to and make an effort to see?
Widespread Panic, for sure. I try to see moe., Umphrey’s, Jimmy Herring, definitely Phil Lesh, and I’m gonna go see both RatDog shows when they hit town in February. I’ve also kinda gotten into Railroad Earth, thanks to my dad. One quick aside, I think the Phil and Friends shows with Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Neal Casal, Jeff Chimenti and John Molo going on at Terrapin Crossroads right now are just out of this world, and easily one of the best things going on right now.
I’m lucky because I live just a few blocks from the 9:30 Club, the Lincoln Theater and the Howard Theater — a nice little triangle of venues. I’ll pretty much go to any show I can make, and I’m lucky to have a lot of good friends who’ll go to almost any show.
When you’re on deadline and you know you’ve got an especially newsworthy story that’ll get a lot of eyeballs, do you put on the headphones at the office and plug into the energy of the music to enhance your creativity and hone your writing?
Yeah, I do. All the time. I have the Bose noise-cancelling headphones because I’m sitting up here a lot in the Capitol… lots of other reporters and other people in the House Gallery. I’ll often decide to go to archive.org and pull out an obscure 2001 Phil and Friends show I’ve never heard, and use that to inspire my writing and thinking. But overall, all of this music helps me in my job.
Having paid your dues to earn your very cool beat covering Congress for Politico, what advice can you give to young folks looking to do what you do?
Contrary to what a lot of others think, I actually believe this is a golden age for journalism. More people are consuming more information than ever before. That in and of itself means there is a desire and hunger and thirst for good reporting and high quality journalism. Some folks think you can just come in and spew a bunch of opinions, and that just doesn’t fly.
You really have to bust your ass in this business… you have to stand in every hallway, knock on every door, make ten extra phone calls and live and breathe reporting. I love politics, but I also love sports, and would love to report on sports. But either way, it’s about being there where the news is happening, and having the desire to beat everyone around you — its kind of maniacal. You can’t rest on your laurels and the question from your boss is always, “What’s next?”