The Family Jams (Factory 25, NR)

family jams_75Banhart, Newsom, and Vetiver have all maintained their artistic integrity, and have been some of the most reliably excellent musicians to emerge in the new millennium.



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After a blink-and-you-miss-it theatrical run in 2010 (which never played in St. Louis) and years of availability of VOD platforms, Kevin Barker’s documentary The Family Jams finally just surfaced on physical media. The Family Jams is something of a concert documentary, but along the lines of Michael Blieden’s 2005 film The Comedians of Comedy, in that it’s as much a hang-out film as it is a concert film.

The tour The Family Jams follows is the 2004 bill that featured Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Vetiver, right as all of them were first being discovered. One can suspect that it’s no coincidence that this finally hit DVD the week before the Newsom-featuring Inherent Vice came out on DVD and Blu-ray, but regardless the motivation in releasing it now, it’s a welcome addition to the collection of fans of any of these artists.

The film itself is one of those ventures where one wonders how much should be attributed to the filmmaker, Kevin Barker, and how much should be attributed to the fact that he was in the right place at the right time with his camera. Either way, The Family Jams is a vital document of the movement that used to be described as “freak folk”—in the movie, Devendra prefers his music to be called “New Age.” One can see why he wouldn’t want that “freak folk” label on his or his friends’ music, but trying to call your music “New Age” while maintaining an aura of respectability is probably a similarly uphill battle.

Since the “freak folk” label has passed, these performers have all had some mannerisms smoothed out and have seen their profiles rise, but it’s a stretch to say that any of them have broken into the mainstream. However, Banhart, Newsom, and Vetiver have all maintained their artistic integrity, and have been some of the most reliably excellent musicians to emerge in the new millennium.

Most of the performances in the film are devoted to Devendra and Joanna, with Vetiver getting the short shrift, with the exception of the titular “family jams,” which are the show-closers where everyone on the tour comes up and performs a song all together. Meanwhile, the DVD comes with 32 minutes of extra footage, all straight concert material and not behind the scenes stuff, and nearly all of that is Joanna and Devendra as well. The film itself is a brisk 79 minutes, so the bonus live footage helps to fill out the package.

Relatedly, the release is listed as a “DVD/Book,” which implies a DVD with a nice booklet as an insert, which most DVD manufacturers have gotten away from owing to the higher production and shipping costs. In the case of The Family Jams, though, it’s more of a book with a DVD stuck in the back; the book is about 60 pages long, and the DVD is in a sleeve glued on the inside of the back page. The book is mostly photos from the tour, along with some quotes and a written statement from Barker and a short piece by Devendra.

I was first introduced to Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom around the time they were on this tour, though I wasn’t able to see them on it. In the interim years, I’ve seen Devendra twice, Joanna three times, and Vetiver twice, but never together. But at least now I have this nice book to dry my tears with while I watch the film on repeat. | Pete Timmermann

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