The most excellent pholks at phish.net asked me if I’d be interested in writing a review of the Friday night Chicago show. Naturally, I strapped in for #couchtour and gave a pretty detailed blow-by-blow of the evening’s affairs. For your reading pleasure, linked here.
When I started this blog, the idea was to subsume all of my informal musicological endeavors under one online umbrella: thoughts about cultural and musicological issues, conference writeups, reviews and thoughts on contemporary classical music, and my love of Phish and the Grateful Dead. At a certain point, a number of those enterprises found other recourses, I got distracted by comprehensive exams and dissertation writing, I got lazy, and I started re-obsessing over Phish. Smooth Atonal Sound followed its namesake and became a Phish blog for a couple years. But there’s a reason I chose that particular Phish lyric as my online presence — it is one of the only Phish lyrics to use a word directly from my academic field (“atonal”) and represents my scholarly passion, post-tonal music of the 20th and 21st century. To continue with another quote from the same song, “this isn’t who it would be, if it wasn’t who it is.” And this IS me, musically speaking.
Returning then to my roots, and just to be writing more often, I’m going back to reviewing classical concerts, writing thoughts on music popular and classical, and all sorts of other non-Phishy things. And Phishy things still. Let me know if you hate it. Without further ado…a concert review of aleatory music. With free drinks.
Certain aspects of John Cage’s music have gotten played out, for lack of a better term. Cage was something of a raconteur in the 20th century, bringing performance art into the realm of concert music, and creating a space where literally anything could become a musical performance. Literally, anything: his piece 0’00″, designed as a sequel to his most infamous piece 4’33″ and dedicated to fellow Fluxus composer Yoko Ono (who also, you may have heard, dated a Beatle), merely required that the performer perform a distinct act. I’ve done performances of the piece where I’ve written an email to my students.
Yet all those things that were so radical, so difficult, and so completely challenging to the way we think of art, performance, audience, and most essentially, music, have been dulled by our own shock culture over the past few decades. We are no longer bothered by a piece composed entirely of silence, and we have come to expect that the performer/audience dynamic may be inverted at any point, the fourth wall of the musical stage to be broken. A performance of 4’33″ almost becomes routine at this point, a novelty item on a concert program. Nothing could make this more clear than the BBC broadcast of a full orchestral performance of 4’33″ by the LSO, complete with the overeager, hagiographic introduction and commentary.
My point is this: the shock value of Cage’s music is dead, as is the novelty factor. All we are left with is the music itself, the sounds arranged in space and time. And although there are potentially some cool moments where the audience becomes the piece, 4’33″ just isn’t that great. In that BBC video, the commentator’s reaction, the shots of the audience looking intently pensive, the rote and obligatory applause, it just highlights the farcical and self-serving nature of this sort of performance.
This is why Tuesday’s performance at Carnegie Hall of Cage’s Indeterminacy, with a simultaneous rendering of his Fontana Mix on lights and 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist, was so successful. It worked as a musical performance. Without being shocking, without being wildly innovative (these pieces are nearly 60 years old!), and even without drawing too obvious attention to its own chance operations, the evening was a wild success based on what we heard and saw alone.
Indeterminacy is a collection of short stories, each one told over the course of one minute, read from notecards. The order of the stories is randomly determined. The topics of these stories range from the metaphysical to the literal, but all seem to celebrate their namesake philosophical principle, that of chance, randomness, happy accidents, and happenstance. Some reinforce the meta-narrative of indeterminacy, others play out like little zen miniatures (appropriate since many of them concern Buddhist monks or figures like D.T. Suzuki), and still others are vignettes that offer a glimpse into the playful mind of their creator.
Doubling down on the aleatory concept, Cage dictated that another piece of his, or another media of art altogether, could be superimposed with Indeterminacy, so as to create even more of the chance alignments and dissonances, both musical and cognitive.
What struck me most, and what played out as such a beautiful aesthetic, was how little I was conscious of the indeterminacy as I was watching and listening to this piece. Certainly the lights, percussion, and readings never seemed to be intentionally in sync, but they still seemed to go together in some inexplicable way. Even the random ordering of Cage’s stories seemed to happily effect a narrative or some continuity, occasionally, as when a story about taking one of Schoenberg’s classes in L.A. preceded a story which began “Another time, Schoenberg…”
When the lights, percussion, and readings did happily find themselves in alignment, the overall effect was glorious. Percussionist Steve Schick’s scrapes, rolls, and hits, a virtuosic performance in and of itself, often seemed to fill the spaces in the stories. There was a notable moment when actor Paul Lazar, whose voice lacked the gentle yet focused lilt of Cage’s but who instilled the same intensity and deliberateness into the words, spoke about water to the accompaniment of Schick’s brushed metal, like the sound of a stream, while lighting director Eric Southern illuminated bright blue LED floor lights.
The stories were funnier than I was expecting. I laughed out loud a number of times; some folks around me even more. I suppose I was expecting mostly philosophical ponderings on the nature of randomness, or the randomness of nature, but many of the stories ended with a sardonic twist (especially, surprisingly, the ones about monks).
Perhaps my favorite moment was hearing the story from Indeterminacy that I know best, because it’s featured in the Peter Greenaway film that I use when I teach Cage. Although I never realized until hearing it in the context of a complete performance, I had my own meta moment of happy accident because this story, about Cage’s trip to an isolation chamber at Harvard, includes the line “anybody who knows me knows this story, I am constantly telling it.” Here I was, listening to a performance of Indeterminacy, and realizing that I knew this story, because I know Cage, and he is constantly telling it. That’s the real beauty of a performance of this sort. I became part of the narrative of indeterminate nature that the piece reveals is part of all life. It’s entirely random that I show that particular clip of the Greenaway film, and of all the stories from Indeterminacy that he could have chose, the director uses this particular one, which is a comment on how many people know this story. It was like hearing that one familiar riff in a long improvisation, or somehow recognizing a song during a random band’s performance. It made me exceedingly happy.
Despite my harping on about the wonderful musical content, one other personal highlight was an aspect of the performance that was, in some way, more philosophical than musical. With the house lights up and stage lights down, and the audience still milling about in their pre-concert drone of conversation, Schick walked on stage and began to play. Because 27’10.554″ is a collection of singular hits, scrapes, and other weird percussive noises, it seemed as though he was warming up, or soundchecking. But in fact he was beginning the piece. And just like that, Cage managed to prove provocateur again. The audience, without their realizing it, became part of the performance. I realized this within about a minute, and sat with a grin as I listened to the piece: a combination of carefully conjured percussion noises intermingling with the melody and percussion of the audience, their voices, footsteps, tappings, and seat adjustings. The man next to me started shushing people, itself becoming part of the soundscape. Eventually but very gradually, the crowd realized what was happening and became silent, by which point the piece had been going for over 5 minutes. It was glorious.
The other half of Tuesday’s performance was a world premiere of virtuosic violin pieces by David Lang, called Mystery Sonatas and based on the mystically captivating pieces of the same name by Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Thematically connected to the Cage works by the evening’s theme of “Memoir,” the music was a stark juxtaposition in genre, timbre, and style to the Cage, but a welcome one. Violinist Augustin Hadelich played his face off, too, pouring his emotion into both the music and his facial expressions. All seven movements featured the post-tonal diatonicism and repetitions of melody that are hallmarks of Lang’s style, I guess they call it “post-minimalist,” or whatever.
“Joy” opened the piece with delicate harmonics, establishing the higher register of the instrument as the primary one for most of the work. This slow and reflective movement gave way to a fiery display of tremolo bowing in “After Joy,” Lang outlining chords as Hadelich moved up and down the neck with precise breakneck speed. The three middle movements, “Before Sorrow,” “Sorrow,” and “After Sorrow,” all used a similar motive, with slow but steady arpeggios and a vaguely Jewish melodic character, like the minor key chanting of a cantor. Especially impressive was Hadelich’s ability to continuously bow a triple stop while changing notes all at the same time. It provided an eerie, droning pedal-point effect that was wonderful and virtuosic without the ostentation of “After Joy.”
“Before Glory” returned to the speed and precision of its inverse pair in the set, this time with scotch snap rhythmic figures rather than tremolo, while “Glory” provided a sort of major key, blissful meditation that complemented both the melancholic “Sorrow” and the ethereal, other-worldly “Joy.” Lang has created a masterful work for solo violin, still, Hadelich’s emotional display of talent was the star of this piece.
Oh, and they gave out free drinks. The “Langonade,” with bourbon, triple sec, lemon, and sprite, was delicious.
Starting around November 3rd, I spent a lot of time listening to the second set of 10/31/13. A lot more than I thought I would. In attendance at the show, I was, like many, initially a little disappointed to find out that we wouldn’t be getting one of the most cherished of Phish traditions, a Halloween cover set. But within a few minutes my disappointment turned into eager optimism and excitement.
I loved the jam in “Fuego,” I thought “Monica” was amazing. “Wombat,” obviously, was one of the more memorable Phish moments I’ve seen, just for the sheer absurdity of the event. Other than that, I remember enjoying it all (except Mike’s out of tune singing on “Snow”) but realizing that I’d need to listen more. Really, the most immediately striking thing about 10/31/13 for me was the monstrous “Ghost”>”Carini” in set 3. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my few years as a music journalist, or my many more as a musicologist, it’s that you need to listen to a piece of music multiple times before you can make any judgments on it. So listen multiple times I did.
Nearly two months later, I’ve internalized the entirety of Wingsuit (I still skip “Snow” most times. Sorry Mike, you’ve got to take that down a few steps). I know every lyric, I know all the changes, I’ve memorized certain solos. And I love it. I love all of it. I love the ethereal psychedelia of the title track, the blistering “Birds”-esque jam in “Fuego,” the catchy 60s pop of “Monica,” the floating otherworldliness of “Waiting All Night,” the Little Feat-cum-80s Dead New Orleans groove of “You Never Know,” Trey’s Neutral Milk Hotel wannabe “Amidst the Peals of Laughter,” and the dark funkiness of “555.” And as we prepare for yet another beautiful Phish tradition, the New Year’s Run, what I’m most excited for and grateful for in this incredible 30th anniversary year (other than the Tahoe Tweezer) is to hear what will happen to the Wingsuit songs over the next four nights, and then into the future.
See, the only way I know Wingsuit, the only way any of us know it, is in the barest bones version of each song. We know the basics of every tune, but we don’t know how the band will integrate the songs into the normal curvature of a Phish show. Placement means everything: “Seven Below” had potential when we heard it on Round Room, but we had no idea it would turn into a behemoth second set jam, as it did on 7/13/03 or 11/28/09. And of course, we don’t know which songs that were 5 minutes long on 10/31/13 might become 14 minutes on 12/30/13.
So here’s how I hope it goes down over the next four nights. By the time you read this, we’ll have probably already heard a few of the new tunes, and we’ll have plenty more to talk about.
“Wingsuit” was awkward as a set opener. With that melty, gooey quality to its opening chords, it’s far too mellow to open a set. But it’ll truly shine as a landing pad following a oversized set 2 opener. Like “No Quarter,” “20 Years Later,” or the many ballads that have filled the role over the years, “Wingsuit” will excel as the re-entry into our planetary orbit after the cosmic excursion of a “Tweezer,” “Carini,” or “Disease” set 2 opener. “Wingsuit” retains just enough of that psychedelic tinge to provide a perfect transition from deep space exploration to terrestrial endeavors. As a counter example, think of how inappropriate it felt to hear “Number Line” after the landmark 12/30/12 “Carini.” The conventional song form and peppy lyrics were an odd juxtaposition, to say the least. But throw “Wingsuit” after something like that “Carini,” and you’ve got a seamless thread between the unknown and the known worlds. Or how about a “Mike’s”>”Wingsuit”>”Weekapaug”?
“Fuego” could go anywhere in a show, I think, from set 1 closer to show opener, to mid-second set. More importantly, what will happen to the jam? On Halloween it was a lean 80 bars of fast 4/4, just 20 4-measure phrases, barely 2 minutes. The intense two-chord jam–one of the only instances of a Phish jam embedded, dare I say, like a Bisco jam into the middle of a sectional song–is almost like a cross between “Piper” and “Birds,” but if they are willing to stretch it out, it could truly be the fire of its name.
I have no idea what will happen to “The Line.” It’s probably in my lower tier of tunes from the album, even though I know many of you out there LOVE it. I think it’ll find its way comfortably into the middle of first sets, sandwiched between a “Divided” and a “Funky Bitch,” perhaps. And I don’t think it’ll really jam much more than it already has. But I’d love to be proven wrong.
“Monica,” on the other hand, is a song that I hope Phish, and Trey specifically, have big plans for. While I loved the day-glo bubblegum effect of the acoustic ensemble on Halloween, I think this song will rock when played with electric instruments. And I think Trey needs to grab it by the balls and shred over the changes following the little vocal breakdown. I hope that dear “Monica” doesn’t end up the next “Bouncin” or “Silent,” ending with a glorious bit of vocal polyphony but identical in every version. I hope she puts her fuckin wingsuit on and flies.
“Waiting All Night” will turn into a huge jam, I hope. I’d love to hear it grow some legs mid-first set, or even mid-second. Like “Wingsuit,” “Waiting All Night” could be a nice transitional tune after a huge set two opener. But its effervescent modal qualities will bode well for some further exploration.
“Wombat” is clearly going to wind up like many excellent funk vehicles, such as “Moma,” “Tube,” or “GBOTT,” placed in a first set somewhere. But like “Moma” and “Tube” occasionally used to do, and like “Wolfman’s” still does, I’d love to hear this expand in a second set placement. We didn’t hear a single melodic line from Trey during the Abe Vigoda dance section, or the follow-up exit music, on Halloween. Imagine what will happen if he starts laying down short melodic fragments on top of that chugging, off-kilter groove. Cuddly, but muscular!
“Snow” needs to change keys. Mike cannot sing it in its current range. This is what happens as you near 50. But if Mike sang it in his natural voice instead of falsetto, I could be very happy catching this about as often as I get a “Sleep,” “Driver,” or “Swept Away.”
“Devotion to a Dream” is the only bonafide set 1 opener on the album, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it assume that role on the finished studio product. Sounding sort of like an outtake from Hands on a Hardbody, the song has affinities to “Sample” and “Number Line,” but with a slightly Phishier feel to it. We’ll definitely be jamming out with big smiles to this one, often, in the future.
On the other hand, I think that “555″ has some serious set 2 jamming potential. They already proved this when they took it into a quasi-industrial noise jam that followed the same rising chord progression as “Tweezer Reprise” or every version of “Walk Away” since 6/17/10. And it was the only song that seemed to leap out of its structural bounds, the only one to go type II, before it landed comfortably in the gentle sway of the “Winterqueen.” I’m a huge fan of “Winterqueen,” and I think that like “Wingsuit,” and as it did on Halloween, “Winterqueen” will be another great late second set cooler, sort of like what “Thunderhead” did in 2003 (remember that song?), or what “Strange Design,” “Roggae,” and “Bug” often do. A nice fourth quarter rest before the set closing “YEM” or “Bowie” or “Hood” or “Slave.” But like “Bug” or “Roggae,” its jam isn’t just a throwaway. It carries its own weight.
“Amidst the Peals of Laughter” is one of those songs that I know Trey, and especially Tom, is really proud of. But I have no idea where it will go. It’s a song I imagine we’ll rarely hear, something in the vein of “Dog-Faced Boy” frequency. Finally, “You Never Know” doesn’t seem to offer a lot via jam potential, but that doesn’t mean that it has nowhere to go. Another first set tune, I could imagine hearing it as a closer following a big “Bowie” or “Antelope,” the post-closer closer. But I can imagine its groovy bounce opening a balmy summer show, too.
Like I said, by the time you read this, some of these will likely be proven totally wrong, and maybe I’ll have gotten a few right. Either way, as this 30th year of Phish draws to a close, we’re pushed up to the edge. It’s time to put our wingsuits on. ‘Cause it feels good.
During the second set of Sunday night’s stellar show in Hampton (10/20/13), which I wrote about here, my wife turned to me as we basked in the dreamy glow of Kuroda’s lights during the “Tweezer” jam and said “it sounds really Pink Floyd-y.” This wasn’t the first time she’d said so that weekend — she’d described the interstitial space between “Ghost” and “Down With Disease” in the same terms. It wasn’t just the fact that it was spacey psychedelia, it was a certain kind of spaceyness.
Usually when Phish turns to a spacier segment of their jams, they are focusing on timbre, creating washes of music that are intended to sound a particular way. It’s the combination of airy keyboards, lots of effects, often lots of cymbals, and usually rolled chords or arpeggios. For instance, one of my favorite spacey jams comes from the summer of 2003, which was a great time for effervescent psychedelic playing from the band, in the middle of what I consider the jam of the year, the 7/13/03 Gorge “Seven Below.”
Here Trey continues a loop of two notes that he’d set up, Page has a few drone chords going and adds in extra synthesized sounds here and there, Mike is droning, Fishman comes back with a slow beat with lots of cymbal, and when Trey starts playing melodically, it’s static. There’s no direction to his playing, he’s not really “jamming” or “soloing” in the way we often use the term, it’s more like he’s playing multiple notes as part of the tableau of sound. That those notes are presented melodically doesn’t really make it a melody, if that makes any sense.
I don’t think of this as particularly sounding like any other band, it seems unique to Phish’s aesthetic, especially from that summer, that tour. You can hear it all over the IT jams, especially the glacial move from “Waves”->”Bowie” on Day 1 (8/2/03), and of course it’s the basic sound of the Tower Jam.
But Sunday night in Hampton, and indeed ever since Tahoe, Phish’s spacey moments have had a lot more structure, a lot more rhythmic drive. The band hasn’t been content to just create washes of sound and noise to create space, they’ve been making a more conscious effort to play spacey jams. All the elements of a normal jam segment are still there: guitar riffs, steady drumbeat with clear accents, a bass line, sometimes even a chord progression. But they’re combined with the ambient, psychedelic timbre, those synths and warm, fuzzy sounds, alongside ample effects pedals. One reason this has happened is that I think Page has become much more comfortable with his rig, especially with some of the previously less-used pieces, and Mike has also become much more comfortable playing with electronics in his pedal setup (and of course he’s got that killer pedal with the foot keyboard, you know the one, for that “brown note” effect in “Tweeprise”).
And so you get a space jam with all the colors of ambient jams from years past, but with drive, purpose, direction, and more clarity than we’re used to. You get this jam from the Hampton “Tweezer”:
It grows from that same place of total a-everything: arhythm, amelody, etc. But then it turns into a legitimate jam segment, with a two-chord progression, and a distinct sound.
Basically, it reminds me a lot of this:
That’s part of the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” the crowning jewel from their 1971 LP Meddle. But there were other parts of Sunday’s show that reminded me equally of other parts of that album. Take, for example, this meaty and noisy chunk of the “Golden Age” jam:
The keys and guitar are both pulsating, Fish is erratically hitting anything in his way, and the sound seems to come back into the texture in large waves. I was shocked when it was happening because it was so good and so daring, and even more shocked when I listened back and realized how much it recalled Floyd’s “One of These Days” for me:
So now I’ll make the irrational jump to conclusions: I’m making the case that this year’s Halloween album will be Pink Floyd’s Meddle from 1971.
Let’s start off by admitting that my evidence here is FAR from scholarly and sound, it’s merely a wild guess and shot in the dark, as are pretty much every guess at what Phish is going to cover tonight. Still, here’s my logic. Phish has said that they always feel like their Halloween album must be so obvious because it’s reflected in their playing leading up to the show. In retrospect, I’m not sure there’s anything particularly Little Feat-esque about the Fall 2010 tour, in that Phish generally sounds pretty Little Feat-esque these days (especially on laid back funky tunes like “Wolfman’s,” “Ocelot,” even “Alaska”). But especially the music that came after their 1996 Halloween costume sounded like it had been washed in Remain in Light, and as I’ve written elsewhere, part of the reason Fall 1995 was such a great time for Phish is that playing Quadrophenia forced the band to tighten and reign in their unchecked, wild experimentation from the previous summer.
Phish sounds like they’ve been practicing, listening to, and internalizing Pink Floyd these days. And it’s not just because two jams from Hampton bear an uncanny resemblance to tracks from Meddle. It’s the overall style of jams, with a funky character that’s still laden with psychedelia, that leads me to think this. Remember, Pink Floyd in the 70s was pretty funky, even though we don’t always think of them that way. Consider “Have A Cigar,” “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2,” “Pigs (Three Little Ones),” or this funk jam after the lyrics in “Echoes”:
There are other reasons, of course, why this album would be great for Phish. “One of These Days” is a driving, menacing tune, which Gordon would absolutely slay. More so than other albums they’ve played, Meddle would lead itself to extended improv. Certainly during parts of almost every song (except maybe “Seamus” and “San Tropez”) there could be moments to stretch things out far beyond where Floyd took them. The album is only 46 minutes long, so they’d need to stretch it out a bit to fit it into a full set.
The album wouldn’t require any guests, since Floyd has the same instrumentation as Phish. Some of you may be griping “but they already did Floyd, remember?” Of course they played all of “Dark Side of the Moon,” but it wasn’t on Halloween, it wasn’t rehearsed. It was a beautiful idea that came together at the last minute and they pulled it off pretty well, but it’s not without serious problems (I mean, they learned it in an afternoon!). Meddle, on the other hand, would be polished, practiced for weeks, listened to for longer, thought about. In short, it will have become ingrained into Phish. Indeed, I think it already has.
“Fearless” would be a great song for Trey to sing, perhaps with acoustic guitar, and is probably Floyd’s best verse-chorus pop/rock song , “Pillow of Winds” could get stretched out wonderfully, I can practically already hear Mike singing “San Tropez” and Fishman singing “Seamus.” And “Echoes.” Oh, “Echoes.”
There probably isn’t a Phish fan alive who also loves Pink Floyd that hasn’t daydreamed about Phish covering “Echoes” at one point or another. Ever since I discovered the song (which was after I started listening to Phish), I’ve had a fantasy of hearing that “ping” at a show. As a composition, “Echoes” actually mirrors how Phish is jamming now. They start with a song structure, then it moves into funk, then space (deep space), then it gradually builds back up with a huge peak. Each of these sections could get lengthened: Floyd’s album version is 23 minutes, Phish could turn this into 35 minutes if they wanted, especially by jamming out the part after the lyrical return (the album version sort of just fades away…).
So that’s my case for Meddle. Granted, after the Reading show, and after reading a post from the guy who called the Little Feat album in 2010, I’m more inclined to believe the current rumor of the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat A Peach, which would be an entirely different beast altogether. Parts of the Reading “Down With Disease” smelled strongly of “Mountain Jam,” and Kenwood Dennard would be the perfect steady Butch Trucks to Fishman’s wild, jazzy Jaimoe. We’d have to deal with the fact that every song on the album, even the ones recorded without Duane Allman, feature slide guitar, something Trey has never utilized. But Phish used to cover “Whipping Post” all the time, and they slayed it without a slide. Plus, they could always ask one of their friends, like Seth Yacovone, or maybe one of the guys who actually plays Duane’s parts in the Allman Brothers Band (Warren Haynes or Derek Trucks) to join them. The more logical ABB choice, for me, would be Brothers and Sisters, mainly because it features Chuck Leavell on the piano as a much more prominent role in the band, and only one guitar throughout. Page would kill Chuck’s solo on “Jessica.”
But that’s the beauty of this Halloween gag. Even in this age where information gets leaked and everyone knows everything, we’re still awake at 1am the night before Halloween, wondering what we’re gonna get.
10/20/13 Hampton Coliseum
I: Julius, Funky Bitch, GBOTT, Roses Are Free, Sample in a Jar, Ginseng Sullivan, 46 Days, Divided Sky, Bold As Love
II: Paul & Silas, Tweezer>Golden Age>Piper->Takin’ Care of Business*>2001>Sand>Slave to the Traffic Light
E: A Day in the Life>Tweeprise
I knew something was up during Saturday night’s “Tube.”
Not that it blew up or anything, the entire version didn’t crack the 6-minute mark (which actually puts it at nearly twice the length of some recent versions). But there was something in how the band was communicating during “Tube.” Page starts off with a clav solo, as per usual, but Trey happens upon a little riff that catches hold of him, and he just lays it down. He goes from the first scale degree up to the fifth, and then down to the fourth, at first in choppy bits of melody, and then he turns it into long, legato notes played with heavy portamento (sliding between notes).
Then he gets locked into a strumming rhythmic pattern with Page’s clav work, and Mike hits the fight bell a bunch.
At various points over the next 2 minutes, Fishman gets into a very disco-fied moment, Trey starts playing those warbly “we’re about to take this to deep space” chords, Mike gets a slap bass solo, Trey switches to the watery effect, Page jumps to the Rhodes, and then finally they take it to the blues turnaround back into the final verse.
And it occurred to me how very different this “Tube” sounded from others this year. Not because it was jammed out like we all want it to be, but because the brief jam featured many varieties of jamming style, affect, groove, and even lead instrument, without leaving the structure of the song. It was “Tube,” for sure, and it never deviated from being a “Tube” jam, but at points in the jam, it sounded like it could go anywhere.
It’s that edge of the structural cliff that Phish toed during the “Tube,” the edge where, if they wanted to have pushed it just a scoatch further, they would’ve vaulted that “Tube” right into a heavy type-II moment. That’s where Phish seemed to be playing all weekend. Sunday night’s first set was all about that edge. On paper, this set is pretty “meh.” Fun songs, yes, but nothing to really grab hold of. But trust me when I tell you that there was something just a little different about the “Funky Bitch,” the “GBOTT,” the “46 Days.” Take the “Funky Bitch.” It did everything it normally does: rockin’ blues soloing, the lyrics, a sweet organ solo from Page, Mike’s long vocal sustain. But when Trey begins his solo, it’s not just a wailing blues.
Trey starts out low and subdued in his blues-rock idiom. But rather than just hosing it down from the start, there’s a strong sense that this jam will build. He eventually finds his way into a single-pitch rhythmic pattern, which Page picks up. Trey then uses this as a signal that he’s going to take it into the next gear, unleashing some of the hose. Mike does an admirable job building this one up too, following Trey’s lead with both intensity and melodic activity high on the bass neck. Finally this jam does reach a peak, before one more rhythmic tag to end it. Think about it – when was the last time you heard a “Funky Bitch” that actually built a jam? And the entire jam segment was barely 3 minutes. But it was different than usual.
Things really came to a head during the “Roses Are Free.” For those of us who have internalized 4/3/98, we always have a secret hope that any version of “Roses” will do it, will go there. For two minutes, the 10/20/13 “Roses” did go there. Pushing past the endpoint of the song proper, Fishman kept going with the cacophonous drumming until everything fell into a very Who-esque jam, with Trey coaxing some whale-infused distorted notes out there. Just as quickly as it began, it fell apart. It was the foot testing the waters over that edge.
Even though there were no standout moments of improvisation in the first set, there were many small moments where you could feel the band tickling that improvisational itch within the confines of short jams, or barely any jams. It was almost weird, hearing a variety of moments where any member of the band could have potentially steered everything into the abyss.
As has been the case many times this year, the first set was for songs. The second set was for that abyss.
Everyone in the Phish world is fully aware of what happened in Tahoe, and I think it would be fair to say that no one expected any 2013 version of “Tweezer” to top the 7/31 version. And while I wasn’t there in Nevada, I’ve heard it many times, and this Hampton version is on par, if not better in places, than the Tahoe behemoth.
Trey immediately starts dismantling things, not with melodic or harmonic excursions, but with percussive strummed noise, which he turns into a loop. Some strong dorian whale jamming follows, and it’s clear that they’re pushing this thing, not towards a clear endpoint, but out there into the deep end. One of the reasons the band has been able to slink through jams with such ease and musical dexterity is their transformation of germinal melodic ideas into larger scale harmonic moves. Early in this “Tweezer” jam, we get this type of motion: Trey finds a riff descending from the minor third to the tonic note in A minor, C down to A. When Trey suddenly decides to sustain that C instead of descending from it, the band adjusts and launches right up into a momentary tonicization of D major, creating a wonderful dissonance between Trey’s C and the band’s D major that suggests the mixolydian. All Trey has to do it adjust up to the D, and he moves the jam into D for just a second. Then they all fall back into the A minor. Trey laid the bait, the band took it, he met them there, and then they all regrouped.
As the jam dissolves into space, and Mike starts playing some deep impact notes, we can still hear that loop that Trey set up at the start of the jam, pushing this thing onward. The jam has dissolved, but the basic beat is still right there. They’re on that edge again. Trey, probably unintentionally but still amazingly, brings back the 1-5-4 slide riff from the previous night’s “Tube” jam. And then Mike pushes everyone over the edge.
With the jam still hovering in a spacey A minor, Mike moves up the triad to C, and then plays a pulsating two-note E riff. This E is higher than the previous A, and so the entire jam has the feel of suddenly getting lifted upwards. Often when this occurs it’s from a minor key area into a major key area, and we hear that uplift as the aptly named “bliss jam.” But here, the band lifts up into another minor key (the same key as Carini, btw) and now it’s downright evil Phish (when they started this, I remember thinking how much it reminded me of the 12/30/12 Carini jam). Page somehow follows Mike instantly, matching his two-E pulse with quiet E minor chords on the piano, and they’re ready to build this jam section up.
It happens quickly and effortlessly, but it’s that’s spontaneous composing-on-the-spot style of improvisation that has set this year’s jamming apart. When Trey finally starts adding chords, the whole thing gets moving, and Trey adds in a menacing sounding slide from G to E, just to solidify the fact that we are definitely now in a nasty E minor jam.
This was one of those moments where Kuroda merely adds to the treacherousness of the whole thing – Trey finds this very dissonant chord that he plays on the upbeat to the measure, and Kuroda flooded the stage with menacing white strobes every time Trey nailed that chord (Mike Hamad calls these the “Screech chords,” which perfectly sums them up).
This jam starts off as just Mike/Page/Fish; Trey is just providing those screech chords, and then he leads into some tasteful whale jamming, something that he has mastered since he first introduced the technique in 2010.
When this jam hits the point where it seems it might peter out into the next tune, it turns into another opportunity to stretch things even further. Like the Tahoe Tweezer, at every possible moment of termination, the band just pushes the jam to the next segment. Trey starts some “Ghost” sirens, and we have a true section of space, before Page leads everything into a soft, blissful major key. There’s something wonderfully Pink Floyd-y about this section (think Meddle mellowness). Starting on the Fender Rhodes, Page sets the stage for the prettiest jam section of the night, and when Fishman picks up a gentle beat, it feels like we’re suddenly in the chillout room of a club somewhere. This is that moment, when you realize how completely lost in the music you’ve become.
Trey ventures into strong sustained notes that sound like he’s jamming on “What’s the Use?,” but he doesn’t actually play the melody or chord progression of that composition. Still, this whole section sounds like a Siket Disc outtake, with powerful soaring melody from Trey and psychedelic glissandos from Page. And then just as it begins to die down, Trey starts the “Golden Age” riff. It’s a true “>” moment in the setlist, as the riff emerges perfectly out of the fading psychedelia.
I’ve always liked “Golden Age,” but I think that this cover, like “Rock and Roll,” “Drowned,” “Ya Mar,” and “2001,” has attained ownership status. As in, this is Phish’s song now. At least that’s how they play it – they’ve found their voice on it. And their willingness to stretch it out just confirms this.
There have been some pretty special “Golden Age”s in the past few years, but this is one for the record books. Not only is this the longest version to date, but it’s certainly the most daring and dynamic jam. There’s a nice jam on the sunny bridge chords, and then the improv turns back to the verse material, continuing the trend of most “Golden Age” jams. Usually this heads right for very pointed, tight funk jamming, but in Hampton there was a stronger rhythmic pull away from that funk towards darker territory. Fishman starts by finding a rhythmic pattern somewhere between “Golden Age” and “Manteca,” and Page joins him on piano. It’s clear from the start that this won’t be a typical funk jam.
This section leads to something even more redolent of “Manteca” rhythmic patterns, punctuating the last and first eighth note beats of every measure. The band is taking their time with this, showing incredible patience as Trey and Page both stick with more psychedelic timbres before Page breaks out with his clav-wah sound. Mike begins to rumble up from low on the bass, Page oscillates notes on his synths, and the entire sound starts seeming like it’s washing over the crowd with a ominous quality. As we emerge from the other side, it’s suddenly a different place, even though it’s so similar. The darkness is deeper here, and with Trey laying down some muted staccato patterns, Page gets even noisier and more cacophonous.
Then Fishman dissolves the rhythm, and we’re into deep dark space. Rather than just a quick fade, they linger in this darkness, sounding very much like the drum and noise sections of “Saucerful of Secrets” (more Floyd – a Halloween teaser?). Whereas the “Tweezer” jam went to a cathartic place, the “Golden Age” went to a soul-crushing hellscape. What better way to get out of that than “Piper?”
“Piper” quickly turns into an exercise in fast strumming, with an extremely tight rhythmic pocket, and Trey finds a sweet double plagal progression, sounding a little bit like “Rock and Roll.” Turns out Trey did have a specific progression in mind: Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” This segue defines seamlessness.
In the context of the show this was the pure essence of Phish. After over 40 minutes of face-melting psychedelic improvisation, Phish segued into something so silly, so stupid, and so much fun – a classic rock pop song from their teenage years. It’s all about the beautiful absurdity of the juxtaposition — the serious improvisation and the dorm cover band – but also the totally non-ironic celebration of guilty pleasure music that we all love. We probably won’t ever know how Phish found their way into a BTO song. The fact that they segued out of “Piper” perfectly, the fact that Trey and Page were cracking up as they fumbled their way through the lyrics, and the fact that they didn’t nail the cover like they could’ve all suggest that this was impromptu. Maybe they heard the song on the radio that day, half-assedly learned it, and figured “let’s just play this at some point tonight if we’re in G major.” Maybe it was planned, maybe it was totally unplanned. Whatever it was, it was perfect. They genuinely took care of business during that Tweezer>Golden Age.
A “2001″ that actually got jammed out a bit followed, as much an indication that Phish was in it this set as any. True, it’s still an 8 minute version, but those extra 3 minutes of jamming set this one off from many others of the 3.0 era. And again, the second jam sounded different, and was built up from the bottom, rather than just skimming along the usual surface. Trey and Page let everything fall away leaving Mike’s riff, which Trey then turns into the basis for the jam. They listen to what Mike is doing, and then build a unique jam around that riff.
“Sand” does it’s typically awesome 3.0 thing, and then “Slave” wraps everything up perfectly. Here again, Phish seemed to want to do things a little out of the ordinary. Trey starts strumming on the beat, very simply, almost right from the beginning of the jam. It’s a twangy guitar sound, and Fishman is following him. As they ebb and flow the dynamics, they maintain this on-the-beat pulse, creating waves of sound with a strong upward drive. “Slave” jams usually feature dreamy counterpoint at the start of a jam, but here Trey is barely playing any melody at all. He’s content to let Mike wander melodically. When finally Fishman switches to a more standard “Slave” beat, Trey breaks free, and begins his slow climb to the heavenly peak. On a night like last Sunday night, you get a “Slave” like this.
So what do we take away from this third Hampton show? For one thing, starting a tour in the band’s favorite indoor venue not named MSG is a very good thing. Fall tour is here, in all its dark intensity. But not only are we going to hear scorching 15+ minute jams a few times this tour (fingers crossed), but even songs that don’t see huge improvisational moments might get something a little different added. Whether it’s the last two minutes of “Roses” stretched out beyond the last cymbal crash, a bit of extra meat in the “2001″ jams, a more calculated build in “Funky Bitch,” or a more idiosyncratic 5-minute “Tube,” things are different for the better in Fall 2013.
Next up for me: Hartford. Never miss a Sunday show.
I originally wrote the following article for the Summer 2010 issue of Surrender to the Flow, which as far as I know is still the only Phish lot fanzine out there (and still free on tour!). Many thanks to Christy, the editor at STTF, for giving me permission to reprint this here. The question she posed was simple: describe your favorite Phish jam. Yet as I made clear in the introduction, that’s not the easiest task in the world.
When prompted to give my favorite Phish song, I’ll tell you it’s “Tela” without hesitating. Ask me my favorite show and I’ll likely end up telling you 12/31/95. But my favorite single jam? That’s much harder to pinpoint.
Probably this is because Phish jams are so varied in their style, their mood, and of course their number. Generally speaking, my favorite jams come out of Bathtub Gins, Ghosts, and Bowies, yet I’d just start a laundry list of dates if you asked me to pick one. I almost picked the legendary “Halley’s”->”NICU”->”Slave” from 12/14/95. But ultimately, there’s one jam that I keep returning to, one that I used to permanently keep on my old, small 8GB iPod, one that I turn to when needing something to take me away: the 4/3/98 “Roses Are Free.” As good a contender for my favorite jam as any.
When I sat down to try to figure out exactly what makes it so spectacular, I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike so many of my most-beloved jams – the 12/29/94 “Bowie,” the Went “Gin,” the 7/13/03 “Seven Below” – the Island Tour “Roses” doesn’t travel all that far in harmony, rhythm, or melody from the basic chords of the song. The real beauty of this jam lies in how Phish listens to and communicates with each other, how they blend subtle elements of funk, blues, psychedelia, and rock to create something that is, without a doubt, one of the best examples of Phish succeeding as a whole rather than a set of parts.
“Roses” is in Bb major, and the jam begins innocently by vamping on that one chord (timings correspond to the LivePhish track “Nassau Jam”). Gradually, Trey starts adding little riffs featuring the note Db, a member of the Bb minor pentatonic, or “blues” scale. Around 2:00, Trey turns on the wah-wah, still in that Bb minor blues, a funky blues jam rather than the in-your-face porno funk of Fall ’97.
Gradually the texture thins out, Fishman tightens up the beat, Mike brings a more pointed sound to his bass, and Trey begins a muted, staccato riff. Mike’s bass is still blues but with a strong minor feel, he’s actually alternating between major chord arpeggios and minor chord ones. Page starts adding in some electronic, synthesizer noise, one of the hallmarks of the funky ’97 sound that most often reared its head during “Ghost”. At 8:30, it’s dark, minor, eerie quietness. But still bluesy. And still funky. This is what makes it so good – it’s dabbling in all these styles at once.
Page starts to add another harmonic key area, a bluesy F chord that will have important implications later, on top of the Bb minor soundworld. And with the start-stop jamming at 11:00, the fun aspect really comes out.
At 11:34, Trey slowly strums a Bb minor ninth chord, essentially adding Page’s earlier F minor chord on top of the already present Bb minor chord. Ninth chords have a jazzy sound to our ears, and with that gesture, Trey brings the jam out of the funk.
Yet the basic rhythm and Mike’s bass stay locked into the groove, and so the amalgamation continues: jazzy psychedelia, funk, blues, rock, all at once. Around 13:00 Trey begins soloing in F minor, which feels so natural coming out of the Bb minor harmony, and the melancholy sweeps over. The last minute or so of the following clip is probably my favorite section of this jam.
As this section builds and builds, the rest of the band’s rhythms begin getting more agitated, creating exciting polymeters. Mike oscillates between F and Ab, which are main elements of F minor but which also offer a way out of this darkness. And it’s at this point that Trey performs the jam’s ultimate coup-de-gras: he takes Mike and Page up on their offer and pivots into the blissful world of Ab mixolydian.
This mixolydian scale is like a major scale but with a flat seventh degree, which takes away the feeling of being forced to resolve, of being forced to teleologically complete itself. It just exists there, as if rotating on a pedestal for us to bask in the joyful sound of a major key without having to go anywhere. Not coincidentally, it is the scale Jerry Garcia uses most often to give us his most powerfully soaring jams. Trey’s slowly played descending mixolydian scales around 16:40, in his purest, most un-distorted tone, are the apotheosis of this jam, the god-like light that overloads our cerebral cortexes. For almost five minutes, they milk this for all its worth, before a little noisy space brings them out of this jam and into Piper.
Phish’s musical communication is brilliant in this improvisation, constantly taking cues from one another on stylistic changes, and subtle harmonic shifts. Even in the end, they end up not at all far from where they began a half hour before with the intro to “Roses Are Free,” merely moving a whole step down from the opening Bb major by way of Bb minor and F. There are other jams where Phish communicates well, and sometimes their cues to switch styles, chords, riffs, or rhythms are much more aggressive and intense, creating meaningful but abrupt juxtapositions. This jam is the opposite: its shifts are so fluid, its flow is so steady, and its styles are so linked to one another that you barely notice the changes – you just keep dancing, smiling, freak out a little, and then smile some more. That’s why it’s my favorite jam. Here’s the entire thing for your enjoyment, broken into 2 videos because this thing is just a beast.
I know I’m not alone in my love for this jam. It’s perennially cited as an all-time favorite amongst those who love the ’97-’98 sound. What especially makes it so wonderful is that it’s the second set opener in what is one of my favorite single sets of Phish. This is one of those classic 4-song behemoths that showed up frequently from ’97-’99, when the band was so locked in and interested in creative improvisation that they largely eschewed song structures in favor of wild experimentation. The “Piper” that follows leads into one of the darkest and most evil-sounding jams I’ve ever heard Phish play, while the ensuing “Loving Cup” rescues the set from the depths and adds shimmering, joyous brightness to it all. After almost 45 minutes of cerebral cortex-searing psychedelia, the familiar blues rock comes right at the moment you need it to, just on the cusp of total freakout.
And then the “Antelope” that closes this set. My oh my, that “Antelope.” It has the now-infamous “Carini’s gonna get ya” opening, inserted because Pete Carini had recently chased down a fan who ran up onto the stage during the “Loving Cup” peak. Then Trey asks Kuroda to kill the lights for the jam. Then the jam is one of the most ferocious “Antelopes” out there. And then they go for a super-slow reggae section, followed by one of my favorite tricks – the silent jam during the ending where they only play the punctuating last chords of the 4-bar phrase.
I love the arc of this set, encoring with “Carini” after all the Carini-related nonsense during the “Antelope,” and then closing the encore with, of all things, “Tweezer Reprise” despite not having played “Tweezer” at this show! The energy was just too heavy for them to play anything else. But it all starts with the delicate interplay and seamless blend of funk, blues, rock and psychedelia in this monumental “Roses” jam. Push it into third if you know you’re gonna climb that hill.
And a Happy New Year to you too!
Mostly, I didn’t want to go a full year without posting anything on here. But I’ve been inspired by a recent rush of new Twitter followers (thanks @TheBabysMouth!) to get my blogging act together. Coming up soon – a few new posts on what constitutes a “song” in the live Phish experience, some retrospective reviews of my favorite Phish 2012 jams (since the last time I posted, there hadn’t yet BEEN any 2012 shows!), reviews of some classical music concerts, and the long (really long)-awaited sequel(s) to my article on the evolution of the cow funk.
Part of the reason for my extensive blog silence over the past year (other than that whole dissertation thing, y’know…) is that up until October 2012, I was writing at least once a week for the excellent music website, Consequence of Sound. I’ve included a new link in the menu along the top of the page to all the content I wrote for them – lots of album reviews, a few live reviews, and one really long, pretty awesome summary of Pink Floyd’s albums. The live reviews are classical and rock, the album reviews mostly indie rock stuff, but I’m proud of all of it. I’d still be writing for them if it weren’t for that looming dissertation thing…
Finally, check out this great new site of Phish essays: Please Me Have No Regrets. The dudes over there are doing some cool stuff, it’s now on my blogroll. I’ll be writing some thoughts on their latest essay, about what they call Phish’s “Cubist” era, shortly.
Here’s to a more active Smooth Atonal Sound in 2013! I shouldn’t have took more than I gave. And for a little music, here’s my blog’s namesake tune from 12/28/12, closing the first set in the holiday spirit with a HUGE version including Little Drummer Boy interpolated within: