WE BE JAMMIN': Jam bands are a unique breed. They exist outside the mainstream (i.e. virtually without radio play, press coverage, platinum albums, etc.), and yet they continuously draw throngs of devoted fans to their live shows; fans who've either already seen them live several times or who've heard their friends' tapes of live shows, fervently swapped amongst fans. (Many of the groups encourage their fans to tape their shows and trade them with each other -- as long as the tapers don't profit from their ventures.)

The spiritual figureheads of the scene were the Grateful Dead, the band that began the taping policy. Selling few albums, and garnering virtually no radio play or respect from critics during their extended tenure, the band was consistently among the top concert draws each year they toured. And really, their albums, especially the studio-recorded ones, could never capture their stage shows. It was difficult to understand what all the fuss was about until you experienced them the way God and Jerry Garcia intended: playing two sets a night full of extended improvisational jams in shows that ran roughly three hours long.

And while several of today's crop of jam bands started out when the Dead were still alive and kickin', the death of Garcia in 1995 -- and with him the Grateful Dead -- seemed to spark the proliferation of loads of bands primed to carry the torch set forth by their esteemed predecessors. Two of the best in the genre will come visit us this week.

Arguably the biggest jam band on the circuit today, Phish is making its first Tucson appearance since an early-'90s gig at the Arizona Ballroom in the UA Student Union. Since that time, the band has seen their audience (as well as their concert ticket sales) grow exponentially. From 1995 to 1997, the band played fewer gigs while their grosses kept climbing. (In 1997, the band played only 44 shows, but grossed over $21 million.) And while their music bears little resemblance to the Dead, they definitely subscribe to that band's stretch-out-and-jam policy. The group's eclectic and goofy charm fuels mutant improvisational quirk-pop, which incorporates elements of any genre you might care to name.

For their ninth and most recent album on Elektra Records, last year's The Story of the Ghost, the group -- comprised of Trey Anastasio on guitar, Jon Fishman on drums, bassist Mike Gordon and Page McConnell on keyboards -- convened in an upstate New York studio, first in March '97 for four days, then six months later at the same studio. Fresh off a European tour, the band was, in McConnell's words, "very much in the mindset of extended jamming." And that's exactly what they proceeded to do in those sessions, which were originally intended for a limited-edition, all-instrumental release. But when the Phishes went back over the tapes, they realized that with a little cutting and pasting, they had just recorded the foundations of their next proper album.

They took the tapes to a rented Vermont farmhouse, eight-track recorder in hand, and recorded largely improvised vocals over instrumental excerpts. While this session was intended to produce demo versions of the songs, the boys were so happy with the results that they released the recordings as-is and, ultimately, brought their "create spontaneously and in the moment" concert modus operandi to the recording process as well.

The court jesters of the jam-band circuit, Phish will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 21, at the Pima County Fairgrounds. Advance tickets may be purchased for $25 at all Dillard's box offices, or by phone at 1-800-638-4253. They'll cost $27 at the door. For details, call 762-9100.

"America's premiere polyethnic Cajun slamgrass band," Leftover Salmon has much in common both philosophically and musically with the Grateful Dead. Both bands used bluegrass as a starting point to produce a wildly diverse sound that melds, in Salmon's case, ska, electric jug band music, funk, Cajun, and straightforward rock for a virtually unclassifiable dance music dosed with a liberal amount of playful humor. The Village Voice aptly described the band as "a week-long folk fest packed into an over-pressurized can."

Having perfected the groove-heavy amalgam showcased on the band's three previous albums, the Boulder, Colorado, quintet traveled east to Tennessee to record their new full-length, The Nashville Sessions (just out on Hollywood Records). The result (ironically enough, given Music City's recent bent toward pop-country pap) is a return to Salmon's bluegrass roots, a stripped-down affair that includes nods to Afro-Cuban pop, outlaw country, and gritty two-steps, as well as a guest list that would make any self-respecting country- and bluegrass-leaning band weep in their moonshine.

Collaborators include folk/blues hero Taj Mahal, Béla Fleck, Blues Traveler's John Popper, Waylon Jennings, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Widespread Panic's John Bell, Big Head Todd Park Mohr and Lucinda Williams. The result is the most consistently listenable record the band has produced to date, with the added talent contributing congruously to the affair, never overshadowing the fact that this is, still, a Leftover Salmon album. And as great as the new album is, let's not forget that, as with all jam bands, the real magic occurs onstage where the players have room to show what they're made of by expanding on the songs' original themes.

Don't miss your chance to witness the voodoo firsthand when Leftover Salmon hits the stage of the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St., at 8 p.m. Monday, September 20. Advance tickets for the all-ages show are available for $10 at CD Depot, Guitars, Etc., Hear's Music, Zip's University and the Congress Street Store. For recorded information, call 740-0126.

WHO NEEDS INSTRUMENTS? Quick! Name the world's top three solo a capella performers. Stumped? Me too. Aside from Faith No More/Mr. Bungle vocalist Mike Patton (and this is a stretch), who has put out a couple of lo-fi releases that essentially amount to him making funny noises with his mouth, the only legit one I can think of is Bobby McFerrin.

Yeah, okay, so he did put out "Don't Worry, Be Happy," that mind-numbing radio hit that made you want to adopt "Greed is Good" as your personal mantra. If that's all you know about him, then your skepticism is warranted. But if you've heard him do other things -- collaborate with cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma or pianist Chick Corea, conduct some of the world's great symphonies, or utilize his four-and-a-half octaves of sheer vocal exuberance, accompanied only by the sound of his hands slapping out rhythms on his own body -- then chances are you'll be in attendance at his performance this week.

After several years of exploring various collaborations, McFerrin returns to the format that earned him his wings: the one-man show. Part sound-effects machine, part pure jazz vocalist, McFerrin's range and technique are nothing short of extraordinary. Whether he's interpreting jazz and pop standards, performing his own compositions, or duplicating classical pieces, it is often difficult to grasp the concept that so much sound is emanating from only one mouth.

The UApresents performing arts series kicks off its season off with a performance by McFerrin at 8 p.m. Friday, September 17, at UA Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. Tickets range from $26 to $38, with 20-percent to 50-percent discounts for students, children, UA faculty and UApresents subscribers. Tickets may be purchased at the Centennial Hall box office. For additional information, call 621-3341.

PASS THE DOOBIES: "China Grove," "Black Water," "Listen to the Music," "Jesus is Just Alright," "Long Train Runnin'": the Doobie Brothers' canon reads like a modern-day classic rock playlist. The version of the group appearing in town this week doesn't include crowd-pleasing frontman Michael McDonald -- responsible for vocals on many of the band's latter-day classics like "What a Fool Believes," "It Keeps You Runnin'" and "Takin' It to the Streets." But the core of the group's original lineup, responsible for all of the other songs mentioned above, as well as the blues-country rock sound that characterized the band before McDonald stepped into the fold playing middle-of-the-road jazzy-pop, will be present and accounted for: singers/guitarists Pat Simmons and Tom Johnston, drummers Michael Hossack and Keith Knudsen, and guitarist John McFee make up the Moby Grape-inspired sound the band introduced 24 years ago.

In other words, this ain't one of those "only member left is the drummer" reunion tours. This is the real Doobie Brothers, the finest incarnation the band experienced in its long history, re-formed and ready to rock you '70s-California-style. As an added bonus, this is probably the most intimate venue you'll ever get to see these guys play, as they usually opt for huge outdoor "shed" arenas.

Catch the Bros. in a rare club performance at 8 p.m. Tuesday, September 21, at The Metro Nightclub, 296 N. Stone Ave. Advance tickets are $25, and may be purchased at The Metro, Guitars, Etc., Zip's University and Strictly CDs. You can also charge by phone at 1-888-244-8444. Call the club for details at 622-4700.

WHEELER DEALER: Country-tinged modern folk singer/songwriter Erica Wheeler returns to town this week to showcase impressive tunes from her new album, Three Wishes, on Signature Sounds. A descendent of the literate storytelling folk tradition of songwriters like Greg Brown, Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin and Bill Morrissey (whose "Casey, Illinois" she covers beautifully here), she also claims fiction writers like Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver among her influences.

Easy to understand: her own compositions are emphathetic tales of small-town strife, and ultimately the deliverance from -- or at least acceptance of -- these difficulties. She gets spiritual on tunes like "Solace of a Prayer," but avoids the New Age pretenses that can accompany that realm; down-homey enough to make you feel like you're sitting on the front porch with her friend, "in a silk robe/Coffee mug steaming/Next to a book about Van Gogh," on "Saturday;" and her "Jack's Tavern" could be the rural answer to Suzanne Vega's urban "Tom's Diner." Through it all, her voice is alternately sweet and gritty, always honey-dipped, and her acoustic guitar playing assured.

If all of this sounds appealing to you, trust me, you won't walk away disappointed when Erica Wheeler performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 18, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4831 E. 22nd St. Advance tickets are $10, and they'll be $12 at the door. For ticket information and other questions call 795-4135.

SEEKING SOUVENIRS: Once known for being Texas' biggest Django Rheinhardt fans, the Austin quintet known as 8 1/2 Souvenirs -- after undergoing a transplant of all its members save founder singer/guitarist/Frenchman Olivier Giraud -- is all about world-influenced cosmopolitan pop nowadays. Twenty-one-year-old chanteuse Chrysta Bell takes center stage, her velvet-wrapped vocal chords finding their way around the sultry Gainsbourg-esque French pop of "Dancin' "; the latter-day Poi Dog soul torch song, "Lonely in Love"; and most unbelievably, manages to turn ZZ Top's downfall into an erotically charged stunner on their cover of that band's "Sharp Dressed Man."

But the most amazing thing about the band's new release, Twisted Desire (RCA), is that even though their style is rooted in inherently retro styles of music, the album is soulful enough to sound fresh, thereby escaping the dreaded and diminishing "retro" tag. In other words, we all know that Cocktail Nation is mortally wounded, if not already dead. Fear not! Venture forth! Find a proper suitor, lace up your dancin' shoes, and retreat to the 8 1/2 Souvenirs performance at 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 22, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are only $6, available at CD Depot, Guitars, Etc., Hear's Music, Zip's University and Congress Street Store. They'll cost $8 at the door. Any questions? Call 740-0126.

FLATHEAD ALERT! Further proof of the fact that real country music is not dead, and that there are, indeed, a handful of good bands still left in Phoenix: veteran trio Flathead have recently released a new set of songs on the Truxton Records imprint. More understated than their previous work, Play the Good One is subdued bluegrass-inflected rig-rock of the finest caliber. Plus, they haven't played in our neck o' the woods for some time, and if the lyrics to "Go That-A-Way" are any indication ("Tucson, I can't wait/Wishbone, first rate/One-o-seven miles to go/South of town like Mexico/Tucson, I can't wait"), they'll be primed to impress.

Witness the twang of Flathead at 9 p.m. Friday, September 17, at 7 Black Cats, 260 E. Congress St. For details, call the club at 670-9202.