Music Tuesday: Bands That Have “The Switch”

September 22, 2009

2739196943_8ec8824e73My music friends and I have noticed something. There are bands that possess something that others don’t. And, we’ve noticed that possessing that something seems to very very often be a necessary condition for us really liking a band. Sure, we do like bands that don’t have it, too. But, for us to really like a band, that band generally has to have it.

I’m referring to something we’ve taken to calling “The Switch”.

You know how there are those bands out there that seem able to crank it up a notch? They can turn the groove or the energy or whatever it is they have up to 11? Or even higher? Perhaps they find themselves in the middle of a dying set, and right about the time when everyone starts noticing, the band suddenly corrects its course, righting the boat, almost as if it was a setup. Almost as if they have a Switch?

In our estimation, some bands clearly possess The Switch. Others clearly don’t. And some, well, there’s evidence that they are at least aware of The Switch, or they’ve rigged up some kind of facsimile that isn’t quite as powerful or reliable, but is better than nothing.

Probably the best way to describe The Switch is to offer up some examples of bands I’ve seen live and where I personally think they register on the “Do they have The Switch?” meter (I must have actually seen them live to have any sense of whether or not they might have The Switch):


3881761860_e3d12d5a82They clearly have The Switch. Very often, their whole sets are a testament to their having it, as their songs ebb and flow as if meant only to say “on”, “now off”, “now back on”. Listen to the 39 minute Stash from 11/14/95 to hear what happens when Stash gets The Switch treatment. Or, check out the Harry Hood encore from 7/18/03. But first listen the two sets from that night, followed by Hood. It’s clear that Phish either had a meeting backstage, or subconsciously concluded, they’d neglected turning The Switch on at any point that night, and if they were going to avoid thousands of angry Phans rampaging the stage from angry dissatisfaction, they would need to flip The Switch. Enter my all-time favorite Harry Hood. Or, listen to their all-night set from 01/01/00 to hear what 7.5 hours of The Switch sounds like.

Sound Tribe Sector 9

This is the bad that started our theorizing that there might be a Switch. I wasn’t the first to notice, but when it was posited by my friend Jason, I was quick to put forth Exhibit A:  The Summer of 2008. That summer, something had clearly gotten into STS9. Their relentless set from Rothbury made me take notice. Then, a few weeks later, I caught them in Philly. Huh. Something’s clearly gotten into them, I thought. Then, my friends caught their 03/13/09 show in Chicago, dropped me a copy, and suspicions were confirmed. It wasn’t just tension and release. It wasn’t just energy. It was biggerness. Like the boom of breaking through the barrier of sound.

I’d seen them in 2002, and was certainly intrigued. Musically, they sounded different from what was quickly becoming a played-out sound in the jamband scene. But, something was missing.

That something isn’t missing anymore. That something is The Switch.

Yonder Mountain String Band

113875500_cab8072008I think I might have been there the night they discovered The Switch. It was 04/20/02 in Denver. It really felt like the night they went from just another up and coming band to a band really doing something, something more, something bigger. That night was really something special. It’s not often you get to see a band in that moment. It’s usually something you read about, or your friends witness. But not you.

Sadly, I think they’ve since lost The Switch. They’re still a very good band. And I was very excited to see them at Rothbury last year, especially since they had Fishman playing with them. But, something’s different. The handful of times I saw them after 2002 just weren’t the same. Who knows? Maybe they’ve just maxed out how far you can take bluegrass from its center.

Umphrey’s McGee

Now that I’ve given a taste of what it’s like when a band has The Switch, I thought I’d turn it around and show what it’s like without. My friends and I think Umphrey’s doesn’t have The Switch. Which is not to say they aren’t brilliant musicians, or that they don’t put on a good show. Every time I’ve seen them has been better than the one before. And I absolutely admire their talent, and more importantly, their ambition. I wish more bands would, or could, work in classical music into their jams.

But something’s just not there. Perhaps not yet. And thinking along those lines has led me to the theory that The Switch isn’t something you just have or don’t have, but something you earn over time and toil. A lot of time, and a lot of toil. And you might never get there. But when you do, it is unbelievable. And perhaps it is to perceive a band flipping on The Switch that is why we keep going back for more. To see a band that clearly has it flip it once again. To see a band that doesn’t have it, but seems likely to, finally find it.

Some other bands and The Switch:

  • String Cheese Incident – I’m just not convinced they ever had it. I’ve enjoyed their shows, and think they are a good band. But it’s all sounded too contrived to evince The Switch.2094941834_aaba943a2a_b
  • Metallica – I saw them in ’94 in Detroit. All Switch, all the time. Not sure how things are now. But then, there was no question. If they’ve since lost it, well, money and fame can make you forget how great it really was when you had The Switch.
  • Dave Matthews Band – When I was seeing them regularly, back around ’98, they had The Switch. The problem was, they also had The Fans. I got soured to seeing them. Then they went through a really bad creative run, producing some really mediocre songs indicative of No Switch. I caught them again at Rothbury in ’08, then listened to their 08/19/08 show, the day Leroi died, and finally saw that show they did on Hulu. I’m kinda thinking they have regained their taste for The Switch.
  • Tool – Tool might have something else altogether that is even more stupendous than The Switch.
  • Disco Biscuits – I keep going back to the Camp Bisco sets from ’06, and there’s something there I really like. There are moments when I sense traces of The Switch. Unfortunately, I think they suffer from some important limitations that hold them back from The Switch, and I am afraid they might not ever possess it. Let’s just say some of their members, in my opinion, are better musicians than others. And the one, or ones, lack is/are playing an instrument that is elemental to the groove. Man, they are close to having it, maybe in an asymptotic sort of way. Too bad, too, because I could really like this band more than I do, if only.
  • Green Day – Check.
  • Beck – Unbelievably great albums reeking of The Switch. Live? Didn’t smell The Switch. Fun show. No Switch. Contender for the “Greatest Musician/Band Without The Switch” hall of fame.
  • Widespread Panic – Sorry, I just find southern jamrock kinda boring. I don’t mean to say it IS boring. I just find it boring. So, I am absolutely unqualified to argue yea or nay here. Gauging by the enthusiasm emitted by Panic fans at the show I went to, I’m leaning toward them having it. But, it never blipped on my radar.
  • Thievery Corporation – I saw their DJ set at Bisco ’06, and all they did, as far as I’m concerned, was shoot off Switch sparks in all directions. I was grooving and dodging Switch sparks the whole set. Then I caught their full band set at Rothbury in ’08, and while it was enjoyable, sorry, no Switch. There was just something too Adult Contemporary about it. And I gotta say, I have yet to blip The Switch anywhere in Adult Contemporary.
  • Radiohead – When I saw them open for REM in 1996, as someone who was only mildly interested in seeing them, all they did was blow REM off the stage with their Switch machine. I caught them again in ’08, and while I think their Switch machine might have acquired some rust, they are still absolutely a peak band. The Switch is in there. It’s just whether or not they are in The Mood, I think.
  • moe. – Seems like a good place to draw this list to an anti-climactic close. You know, I keep trying to like moe. And when I listen to their live stuff, there are moments when they are clearly flipping on some kind of Switch. But then there is just so much of the time where it’s almost like they are deliberately turning it off for no discernable reason other than to, I don’t know, turn ME off, assuming they are even aware of me. I wish there was some Switch I could flip that would just filter out their songs I don’t like.

Of course, this raises important ethical questions. Should we have a Switch that we could flip on and off? Generally, I’d say no, because part of what makes The Switch so effective is that the bands we see have it and we don’t. But, with moe., to be honest, I’d want an Exception Switch.

Author’s Note: One, this is not a comprehensive list. Two, I don’t mean to suggest that I think I am being totally original here in talking about something we are calling The Switch. Three, my hat is off to Beck and Radiohead for being amazing musicians with absolutely godawful websites.

Photo 1:  I know what The Switch sounds like, but no idea what it looks like. Here’s my first guess. Courtesy of DRB62.

Photo 2:  Bands like Phish and STS9 might not have just one Switch. Courtesy of LogicalZero.

Photo 3:  Maybe it’s not a Switch, but a Button. Courtesy of Ctd2005.

Photo 4:  Perhaps some of these bands just need to fix their Switch. Courtesy of akeg.



  1. Interesting take on the idea. I think The Switch is a purely live phenomenon. Maybe it’s present on some CDs, but I’d argue that use of The Switch is inherent to a performance setting. It’s whole existence is based on group cohesion and the energy of the moment, so I don’t see it on an album that was recorded in a studio. In a nutshell, The Switch is used to Kick It Up A Notch, to amplify the energy. The Switch Goes To Eleven. Can’t do that in a studio. I think an audience is probably required.

    STS9 is definitely the best example, but I think their music is the most conducive to hearing The Switch in action. MMW *could* use The Switch – it’s back there among Medeski’s rig – but their music is of a more introspective nature and not as focused on audience energy. A friend described MMW as craftsmen first and performers second, meaning that you could take the audience out of many of their shows and the band probably wouldn’t play much differently. They’re focused on their interaction with each other first and foremost, and if the audience likes that, great. If not, no biggie. So they might very occasionally deploy The Switch when they come out with a danceable, groovy “Crosstown Traffic” encore, but otherwise, you’re unlikely to hear them crank it up to 11 and send the crowd into a frenzy like STS9 does; that’s apples and oranges.

    I dunno if your Phish example really captures it, though. The Switch is ON or OFF. The whole idea is the abrupt surge of face-melting energy that blasts the audience and the band into orbit. I agree that Phish does use The Switch, but the Cypress all-night set was not Switch-heavy at all. In Phish’s music, The Switch comes through differently. Those moments where everything suddenly crystalizes and a jam locks into a new groove, that’s The Switch at work. You can have a great jam without flipping The Switch at all. It’s all about the transition.

  2. There are times when you clap, times when you whoooo, times when you scream, and times where you’re at a loss for words (or noises) because making a sound might interupt your direct wire from your brain to the band. I’ve seen this. My friends face, the look in their eye, their wry smile, that exprerssion that says to me, “can you believe this?” The smile grows, the head bobs side-to-side. And then maybe the whoo or yeah come. But not before a full connection has been established. This is showing the band has a switch or deeded access to a switch but is not yet using it on us.

    The author pointed out the tension and realease of Phish jams and how they are definitely using The Switch. I somewhat agree with Uncle Snuffles on this issue, Phish often settles into a really funky jam, they dial-in to each other and they are playing as one. But this is not the switch. They may be in that perfect groove, so focused that the music is coming out like high pressure water cutter. 60,000psi focused into the size of a pin head, so powerful, and so together that it can cut through steel. The switch however is like turning on the fire hydrant, or having a forest fire chopper dump thousands of gallons all at once.

    I believe The Switch is honestly rooted in electronic music. The format just lends itself to talented musicians/dj’s being able to harness the power of The Switch. The whole idea for most house, techno, jungle, is that the band/dj takes you slowly up the hill to 7 and then back down to 3 and then up to 8.5 and then maybe down to 4, then up to 9, and then way down to 2 before POW! 11! Yes, Yes!…hmmmm i better stop writing now, my mind is wondering to other topics.

  3. I vote for Maceo Parker.

  4. Snuffles and Orginator (Originator?),

    Yeah, see, that’s the thing about The Switch. I don’t know if I even fully know what it is. In fact, I think being a music fan, in the way we are fans, is an exploration of discovering further clues about what things like The Switch really are (their nature, their sound, their appearance, their feeling). So, I could be way off base.

    I think it can definitely be what both of you are describing. But I also think it can be what I am describing. I really do think Phish flipped The Switch at the all-night show. That didn’t just feel like a night of great jamming to me. And if they didn’t, I think it should be posited for discussion, so we can at least get a better sense of what The Switch is.

    Yeah, MMW certainly seems to possess The Switch and choose not to use it, in the way you are describing.

    And, that feeling of full throttle 11 is definitely a time when I detect Switch usage. Like sticking my finger in a light socket and just letting it ride.

    By the way, metaphor of the day goes to Orginator for the water pressure imagery.

    And blog comment name of the day to Uncle Snuffles.

    And Maceo Parker reference of the day to Andrew. Pass the peas, my friend.

  5. I’m just tellin you the original context of The Switch idea – it was coined to refer to the sudden “OMG” moment where the band and the crowd collectively asplode. If you want to apply it to Phish’s all-night set at Cypress, it’s more like a dimmer switch, gradually easing upward or downward in more gentle oscillations. The Switch is not an inherent sign of quality or lack thereof. You can have great bands and great jams and incredible live music experiences without The Switch being in play at all. In fact, I’d argue that most great live music experiences that I’ve had do NOT feature The Switch. (E.g. MMW.) Not having The Switch doesn’t make a band bad, it’s just a particular characteristic of certain music, like JB said.

    IMO, the critical features of The Switch in action are (a) a sudden transition of some sort, (b) an incredible boost in the band-audience energy conduit, and (c) blown minds. The Originator is free to correct or modify as necessary. 😉

    Btw, I love that I know *exactly* the kind of “can you believe this?!?” look that JB describes above. Been on both ends of those glances with you guys… not just some of the time. Instantly.

  6. And this is why we definitely need to really push The Switch to see what it really is. Maybe what I am describing is a mix between The Switch, and something different. But what IS that something different?

    Yeah, I know that “can you believe this?!?” moment, too. I think I first experienced it thanks to Carter Beauford circa 1998. And I simply cannot count how many times I’ve shared that look at a show. It’s the exact moment that makes me want to go to tomorrow night’s show, too.

  7. BTW, I was listening to the “Sand” from Camden ’09, and I’d say that’s a good example of Phish using The Switch in the sense that we originally discussed it. About 13 mins in, BAM! Hyperdrive. Everything coalesces suddenly and a fat new groove launches out of nowhere, seemingly arranged via telepathy. THAT is The Switch in action.

  8. That really was a delicious Sand. And a delicious show. So many highlights. The Tweezer set II closer. The Fee. The Guyute. Deliciousness.

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