Last year, in the middle of Akron/Family's show at the Tractor Tavern, the four band members stepped down from the stage, infiltrated the audience with hand drums, and persuaded a room of self-conscious indie rockers to chant, "The myriad colored lights of love and space!"
What started off as a night of quiet strumming had turned into two hours of blasted free jazz, dark metal dirges, and extended Zappa-esque guitar solos. By the end of the evening, much of the tight-pantsed audience had left. Only a few stragglers stuck around to see the band's version of "I Know You Rider," a song made famous by the Grateful Dead.
Five years ago, Akron/Family's giddy, earnest-as-a-schoolboy genre-hop rock would've gotten them pegged as a jam band, a pejorative from which there is no redeeming. These days, like other clans of bearded, rural-born musicians, Akron/Family—who hail from Pennsylvania and have never been to Ohio—earn the fortunate if vague tag of "freak folk."
The distinction is purely semantic. The way they play music—and the way they talk about it—is straight out of Reed College circa 1998.
"The indie music community too often stands around with their hands in their pockets or their arms crossed, making silent aesthetic judgments and forgetting how much letting go and dancing can lift the human spirit, the same way it has for thousands of years," says Seth Olinsky, guitarist and vocalist in Akron/Family.
The band don't shy away from making general statements about "the indie community" or from using the j word, though there's no doubt they benefit from its disuse. Pitchfork—who favored the "unmitigated hippie gaiety" on Akron/Family's just-released Love Is Simple—wouldn't deign to even sneer at a jam band.
It's the band's association with DIY guru Michael Gira, who released Love Is Simple on his Young God Records as well as Devendra Banhart's two early albums, that put them in safe, solid freak-folk territory. True, a certain folkiness has always pervaded Akron/Family's music—acoustic guitars, intimate songwriting, campfire harmonies, songs with lyrics suggesting that listeners "go out and love, love, love everyone." But then folky segues to freaky: They've constructed their own semiserious religious philosophy called Ak Ak (which they prefer not to talk about), they hold interband yogi-style beard-growing contests, they sing lyrics like, "In the shadow you gave me a rainbow/it filled the space/the space of my mind."
Love Is Simple is the first album to reveal Akron/Family as a next-generation jam band, improvisational and malleable in ways only hinted at previously. The song "Ed Is a Portal" directly reinvents the eight-minute epics of Phish, with unexpected genre switching, wandering jams, and goofy New Age lyrics.
"Improvising music with friends has been a huge part of my life since I was 13 or 14, and I feel like it has informed not only my musical view but who I am," Olinsky says. "As a kid, I was definitely influenced by a wide range of jam bands. I would be happy to be seen as carrying on even the tiniest bit of the Grateful Dead's tradition."
Like many who graduated from the jam-band generation, Olinsky looks back on that culture with mild contempt, calling it "mid-'90s flaccid noodling music." Yet the emphasis Akron/Family put on their live shows, the motivation to relentlessly tour the world—they've played Seattle three times in 19 months—comes directly out of that culture. Most of the bands in the freak-folk scene are in the same lineage: Animal Collective have stated that they wish that one day "the parking lot of an Animal Collective Show will feel like the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show," and Brightblack Morning Light encourage Gaia-centric community by asking fans to bring crystals to their concerts.
"We want our music to be more about music, more about humans connecting and even lifting spirits by playing music for other people," Olinsky says. "The jam-band audience is more appreciative of that, than, say, the indie-rock crowd."
Though for all appearances, those crowds are now one and the same—at least when Akron/Family come through town. Whether the band signal a turning point in perception or a redefinition of terminology is irrelevant when your eyes are closed and you're swaying in the middle of a packed crowd chanting, "Love is simple."
Says Olinsky: "It's a great time for a jam band to be misinterpreted as cool."