The Age of Miracles
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.