Indie

Goose Is The Next Great American Jam Band

The summer of 2019 seems, in retrospect, like a simpler time. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was in theaters. People online were excited about Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. The Trump era was still in full swing but the election was only one year away. Covid had not yet taken over the world. Hope was in the air. And then there was the sudden emergence of what might be the next great American jam band.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about Goose, a quintet from Connecticut that at the time was still a quartet. I just know that one day that summer I had never heard of them, and then the next day I heard about them constantly. You might not know what I’m talking about; my social feed tilts toward what can only be classified as “Jam Twitter,” where debates about the merits of the most recent Phish show and full-blown arguments about whether Dead & Company plays too slow are in abundance. In that corner of Twitter, the takes came hot and heavy about a band whose overnight success story — sparked by a video of their star-making performance in July of 2019 at The Peach Music Festival in Scranton, Pa. — belied a slow but steady rise that commenced in the mid-2010s.

If your social media feed tilts away from Jam Twitter, Goose is probably still a mystery. I recommend watching the Peach Fest video for a primer. When I first saw it, I was struck immediately by how good it was from a technical perspective. The images are crisp and the sound is bouncy and warm. The jam-band world isn’t exactly teeming with marquee names — more on that in a moment — so I immediately wondered: Why have I not heard of these guys before? They already seemed like, if not stars, then certainly up-and-comers demanding attention.

Then, of course, there was the music. Goose’s leader, guitarist Rick Mitarotonda, has a quiet charisma, undeniable chops, and — here’s a truly unique attribute in the jam world — a cool, commanding voice. To his left in the video is guitarist/keyboardist Peter Anspach, a bespectacled and perpetually smiling foil for the Zen-like Mitarotonda and the stoic bassist on stage right, Trevor Weekz, who locks in effortlessly with drummer Ben Atkind’s busy, jazz-inspired rhythms. (In 2020 — in accordance with jam-band law — Goose added a second percussionist, Jeff Arevalo, who like Mitarotonda and Atkind attended Boston’s Berklee College Of Music.) Their “tension and release” style of jamming is somewhat reminiscent of Phish, but Goose songs are also catchy and pop-friendly. They sound like potential hits that, on stage, happen to include 10-minute guitar solos.

Last (but certainly not least), there are the extra-musical aspects of the video — the sunshine, the trees, the plumes of pot smoke levitating above the festival audience, the mustaches. A Goose show sure looked like a lot of fun. Before long, I was checking for tour dates in my area.

The Peach Fest video has since been streamed more than 341,000 times — hardly viral numbers in the pop world, but enough to cause a sensation in the jam scene. Battle lines were immediately drawn: Fans saw them as the next big thing and detractors dismissed them as a Phish rip-off. Over time, however, it appears that the former group has exploded in number.

Last month, Goose played their first arena show, at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino, for their eighth annual Goosemas holiday show (postponed from December). In June, they will play two concerts at Radio City Music Hall in New York, one of which is already sold out. Two months after that, they’ll headline a concert (also sold out) at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, preceded by two other amphitheater gigs in the area.

Goose has already curated their own music festival in Virginia, featuring indie acts such as Hiss Golden Messenger, Dr. Dog, and Dawes. Earlier this year, they played their first West Coast tour as headliners. This included the packed and rapturously received mid-week gig I caught in February at First Avenue, their first ever show in Minneapolis. All of this has been achieved in spite of some potentially crippling setbacks, not the least of which was a pandemic that kept them off the road right as they were first achieving widespread exposure. But, somehow, they managed to actually grow their audience during the lockdown, thanks to a series of clever live-streamed performances (such as 2020’s Bingo tour, when the band’s setlists were determined by drawing bingo balls printed with instructions like “20-minute jam”) and an uncanny knack for self-promotion.

Along the way they’ve gained high-profile fans such as Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, who tapped Goose last year to create a jammed-out version of the VW song “2021” that lasts (you guessed it) 20 minutes and 21 seconds. “I saw them at The Fonda Theatre in L.A. a few weeks ago,” Koenig told me, “and this time I was really struck by how each member has a strong, unique identity, and yet the whole feels indivisible. There’s a real joy in their performances.”

For Brad Serling, the founder and CEO of Nugs.net — a Spotify for jam bands that posts the latest live recordings by acts like Dead & Company, Widespread Panic, and Billy Strings — the excitement around the band was palpable during a late January run of shows in San Francisco. “I hadn’t felt anything like that in years for something that wasn’t Phish or The Dead,” said Serling, who likened Goose’s rise to the current kingpins of the scene. “I saw Phish play in a bar, and six months later they played a theater. Then six months later they sold out that theater. Then they played small arenas, and then they sold out Madison Square Garden. That was the arc of my college career. I could see that happening with Goose, maybe on a faster trajectory.”

As for the band members themselves, their skyrocketing jam-fame still seems a little bewildering. As Mitarotonda mused in a recent interview, “Now, I’m just used to things getting weirder and weirder.”

Along with being a fan of their music — I’ve seen them three times, which qualifies me as a medium-devoted follower by obsessive listener standards — Goose fascinates me as an observer of both the indie and jam scenes, and the invisible veil that separates those worlds. Goose in many ways signifies that divide, even as they are attempting to bridge it.

Their forthcoming album due in June, Dripfield, presents a litmus test for how a band like Goose is perceived by the mainstream media. Recorded in March of 2021 in Woodstock, New York, it was produced by D. James Goodwin, whose previous credits include records by Kevin Morby, Craig Finn, Bonny Light Horsemen, Whitney, and jam scene O.G. Bob Weir. And the sonic touchstones fall squarely in that sort of company — Goose’s most obvious influences include legacy indie acts such as Bon Iver, Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, and Vampire Weekend.

I normally don’t listen to jam bands for their studio work — even the Grateful Dead struggled to capture their live magic on wax. But Dripfield is a consistently engaging pop-psychedelic record, like a trippier Father Of The Bride. While it is technically Goose’s third studio LP, it feels like a proper debut, far outstripping its predecessors in terms of quality and ambition. Some tracks slip into funky instrumental tangents, but the focus is on concise and punchy songwriting deriving mainly from Mitarotonda, with Anspach pitching in a George Harrison-sized allotment of tunes.

Given Goose’s surging drawing power as a live act, which already seems greater than even many established indie stars — on this year’s Bonnaroo poster they’re billed higher than Bleachers and Japanese Breakfast — Dripfield would seem to warrant coverage as a potential breakout album. But while the record’s announcement last month did garner notices from Rolling Stone and Stereogum, it still seemed muted compared with the attention that much less popular (but infinitely more fashionable) indie acts receive.

When I spoke to Rick, 31, and Peter, 29, a few days before their First Avenue show in early February, I brought up Geese, a buzzy young indie band. I felt I had to bring up Geese, given how comically similar their name is to Goose. But Geese is also an example of the sort of band to which music writers have been typically attracted — they’re from New York City, they play danceable post-punk in the vein of LCD Soundsystem, and they project a photogenic hipster vibe. Last October, the New York Times feted them as hot young phenoms. In January, they were booked on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

Geese is also — judging by the venues in which they are currently booked — not nearly as popular as Goose, who nevertheless have a significantly lower media profile at the moment. They haven’t yet gotten the New York Times/Stephen Colbert treatment. In our interviews, I joked with Rick and Peter about drumming up a Goose vs. Geese feud.

“We were just confused as to why they got into late-night television when they’re playing 200-cap rooms,” Anspach wondered. “Maybe we could drum up some smack with Stephen Colbert, because I would ask him that question.”

This isn’t really about picking on Geese or Colbert. It’s about highlighting how two different scenes operate — one is PR-driven and based on traditional album/tour cycles that can involve late-night appearances and magazine covers, and the other is grassroots-oriented and centered on maintaining a close, intense connection with fans via regular touring and streamable live recordings, all while staying mostly underground.

Mitarotonda admits to sometimes feeling like the grass is greener on the indie side. On Goose’s website, they describe themselves as an “indie-groove band,” though when I asked Rick about this he pointed out that it’s merely a silly pun for “in de groove.” But he hasn’t exactly rushed to embrace the “jam band” moniker, either.

“I mean, it is a demeaning title,” he said, “because frankly there are a lot of cheesy and not great jam bands that have existed over time. Obviously, we’ve strayed away from that for obvious reasons, or tried to at least. But, I mean, we are a jam band. We jam, and we improvise a lot.”

Goose Band
Adam Berta

By the way, as Mitarotonda points out: Improvising on stage in front of thousands of people is extremely difficult. But Goose does it incredibly well, and they are getting better all the time. One of my favorite recent performances is of the song “Arcadia,” from last October in Portland, Maine. Over the course of 22 minutes, the song goes through several movements — it shifts from pokey funk to a mesmerizing, “Sympathy For The Devil”-style progression as Anspach moves to piano at around the eight-minute mark, and then down-shifts again into a menacing ambient interlude several minutes later.

To the non-jam fan, I’m sure listening to a 22-minute song seems like torture. I’ll admit it took me a while to develop what I call “jam ears,” in which even a 22-minute song might not seem long enough. The key to developing jam ears is learning how to appreciate the hypnotic quality of long improvisations. When you listen to a normal song, your brain is programmed to anticipate the chorus, the instrumental break, and — most important — the ending. Even great songs follow this predictable formula. Because the formula is satisfying. Which is why improvised music can seem frustrating at first, because you don’t know what to expect. But in time, this aspect of listening to jam-band music can feel a lot like meditating, clearing the gunk out of the brain as you focus intently on the jam for a half hour or more. The jam becomes a mantra.

When I first started listening to Goose live recordings, I noticed that they tended to reach frequently for “bliss” peaks, in which you build from relative quiet to a blazing run of increasingly dynamic guitar licks. In the jam world, this is as close to predictability as you can get, and piling on bliss peaks can seem tiresome. But in the past year, as they’ve returned to playing for live audiences, there’s been greater patience in their playing, in which the jams are more textural and atmospheric. It’s this aspect that makes performances like the 10/29/21 “Arcadia” all the more alluring and relistenable.

When I brought this up to Atkind, 34, he quickly confirmed that being more patient on stage has been a priority for him.

“It’s a really hard thing to do,” he said. “It’s one of those things where your perspective of being in it versus listening back after, it’s such a different thing. In the moment, I’ll be like, ‘Oh yes, I was patient. I was good.’ And I’ll listen back, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I could have sat on that for another five minutes and it would’ve been great.'”

Goose also operates as a jam band in terms of how they approach their career. They are far more hands-on in terms of actively cultivating an audience than pretty much any indie band I’ve ever covered. Oftentimes, indie acts operate with the hope that a positive review or glowing profile from the right press outlet will help to fortify their brand, whereas jam bands are aware that success or failure depends almost entirely on the work they put in to get better as performers and musicians, as well as their personal outreach to fans.

In the indie world, you announce an album, do pre-release interviews, put out a record, tour, and then disappear for a while. With each new album cycle, you have to re-establish a connection with your audience, which can become more difficult as you move deeper into your career. The jam world, meanwhile, runs more like a modern sports franchise. For instance, as a fan of the Green Bay Packers, I have many options — websites, newsletters, podcasts — to keep me connected on a daily basis to a team that won’t play a meaningful snap of football for another six months. A band like Goose offers a similar experience. There is already a newsletter about Goose, as well as a podcast. They keep you constantly engaged.

“I like bands in the indie world, but I don’t know that world at all,” Mitarotonda said. “Growing up in high school, we went to Umphrey’s shows, and we went to Phish shows when they got back together. That was just the world that I was used to. We assumed that that was what we had to do. I didn’t know any other way.”

It took a while for Goose to figure out their own path. Formed in 2014, they spent several years as a bar band in their hometown of Norwalk. While Mitarotonda was developing into a guitar whiz, Goose’s trajectory was on a flatline. “We really didn’t have a following, and I understand why,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t have the feeling like, ‘Wow, we’re doing such great stuff.’ It was more like, “Wow, how do I fix this? What’s missing?”

The missing piece was Anspach, a gifted guitarist in his own right who was brought on in 2018 to play keyboards in spite of having only rudimentary skills on the instrument. On stage, Rick and Peter eventually developed a yin-and-yang dynamic — the former is introspective and soulful, while the latter flashes an omnipresent grin and acts as de-facto emcee. This suited Rick (“It would feel really weird, me trying to force a Bruce Springsteen thing up there,” he says) but Peter had to grow into the showman role.

“At the beginning, I was very nervous about talking to the crowd. I felt it was Rick’s band,” he said. But once he came into his own as a keyboardist and more of his songs were inserted into sets, “I felt I had something to say, and that dynamic really blossomed.”

Anspach brought other talents to the band. A stint working at a podcast company taught him how to mix live recordings, which paid off when he oversaw the editing of the Peach Fest video and the band started posting live shows on Nugs and Bandcamp. At first, Goose was selective about which concerts they put up for public consumption. But Serling was among those who encouraged them to post all of their shows.

“I always use Phish as the gold standard,” he said. On the band’s own Live Phish app, pristine-sounding recordings appear almost immediately after the concert ends. “If you can get us the music that night,” Serling promised, “it’s going to make a massive difference in your popularity.”

Goose doesn’t get their music up quite as fast as Phish, since Anspach is still the one who mixes the recordings after he comes off stage every night, adding another three or so hours to his workday. But the easy availability of live shows has unquestionably accelerated Goose’s rise, facilitating the sort of hyper-deep listening that has fueled the cults around the Grateful Dead and Phish. Having access to everything is a key part of the world-building that the best jam bands are able to pull off.

“The jam world really has no limit as to how deep you can get in,” Anspach said. “You can get so deep.”

One of Goose’s deepest listeners is Brian Weber, a 47-year-old from Salida, CO. who posts as JiveGoose on Twitter. (The user name references a trilogy of Goose songs with “Jive” in the title.) Weber started the account in November 2019, one month before he saw Goose live in person for the first time. But even before that, he was downloading whatever he could on Bandcamp as he quickly accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Goose.

I started following Weber last year, when I noticed that along with posting rankings of his favorite shows from particular tours, he was also compiling spreadsheets with his top versions of each Goose song spanning their entire career. He’s precisely the sort of amateur archivist that has long existed in the jam scene, in which fans act as part-time critics, journalists, and academics who endlessly document and analyze their favorite bands.

Goose Jam
Jesse Faatz

Occasionally, I’ve DM’ed Weber to ask for show recommendations. Apparently, I’m not the only one — he joked that he’s been more like “Jive Yelp” at times, with fans even reaching out to him to ask for good restaurants in the vicinity of that night’s venue.

A jam scene veteran who saw the Dead in the ’90s and has attended about 80 Phish shows over the years, Weber said he sampled various younger jam acts who could never scratch the same itch. Goose, he says, is different.

“I have a really strong connection with Rick’s songwriting. There’s an emotional kind of depth there. And that naturally carries through the vocals,” he said. “It wasn’t just party songs. You could tell that he was digging deep in terms of what he wrote about.”

Weber points to songs like “Madhuvan” — Mitarotonda is a Hare Krishna devotee — and the similarly questing “All I Need” as personal favorites. (“Dare not talk the truth I have locked up inside / where is that key to the chain holding back my mind / all I need is coming, though it’s not here quite yet.”) Goose does also have a goofy side — they’ve covered Run-DMC’s “Ghostbusters Rap” and multiple Kenny Loggins’ songs, though that aspect of the band has been de-emphasized in recent months.

To be clear: Weber really loves Goose. He probably loves them more than you love your favorite band. Weber estimates that he listens to them about four to six hours per day. Along with checking in on favored jams from the archives, he tries to listen live to every gig, via bootleg streams on Facebook or Mixlr.

“I do listen to some other music,” he said, citing Hiss Golden Messenger as an occasional musical palate cleanser. “But it’s probably 90 percent Goose.”

Not everyone in the jam world loves Goose. When I began delving into this scene about a decade ago, I imagined a utopian alternative to the catty and judgmental indie world, where people love music in a chill, welcoming space. Looking back, this seems incredibly naïve and even condescending. The reality is that every scene has hierarchies of taste and status. The jam scene might, in fact, be even more judgmental than the indie world, considering the most popular acts — Dead & Company, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic — are well-established brands with decades of pedigree. This breeds skepticism about anything new and shiny that might appear to some as over-hyped.

For Goose, comparisons to Phish have been endless and not always favorable. (“I’ve got a lot of people muted, I’ll tell you that,” Weber says.) It’s reminiscent of “what I saw when I was 16 in 1994 and seeing the reactions of older Deadheads to Phish’s music,” said Scott Bernstein, editorial director of the website JamBase and a Goose fan. “‘Goofy songs with no soul’ was a big criticism that I heard a lot. In many cases, the Deadheads didn’t even give them a chance.”

The quickest way to separate Goose from Phish — and Phish from The Dead — is to take note of their respective musical reference points. Yes, they all improvise. But each band draws on the music that resonated with their respective generations: Blues, jazz, bluegrass, folk, and early rock ‘n’ roll for The Dead; arena rock, funk, and arty ’70s prog for Phish; and 21st-century indie rock for Goose. Mitarotonda’s prominent use of vocal effects — the most apparent sign of his Justin Vernon fandom — is the clearest musical example of how Goose departs from their jam forbearers, as are their trance-like jams, which sometimes nod to rave-style dance music.

If Mitarotonda has his way, there might be more breaks with jam convention for Goose. For example, he chafes at the expectation that Goose should play an extravagant New Year’s Eve show every year, in the mold of Phish. While the band did perform on that day in Chicago last year, it was a relatively straightforward affair. “People expected a big gimmick. I was like, ‘Dude, we’re not Phish. Just because we jam, are you expecting us to have a bunch of ballerinas fall from the sky?'” he said. “Every young jam band is like, ‘We got to play New Year’s and do a big gag.’ Do you think you’re going to top what Phish does at The Garden every year? Because you’re not.”

And then there’s the matter of making studio albums like Dripfield. Here Mitarotonda verges on jam-band apostasy. “Ironically, I think I do enjoy making records a little more,” he said. He might even want to scale back their tour schedule — Goose is due to play more than 80 shows in 2022 — so he can spend more time writing and recording songs.

“I’ve always loved being in the studio from the time I was in middle school,” he said. “Playing shows is awesome and super fun. But making records, I hope, becomes more of a part of what people know us for. But I think it’s up to us to do that.”

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