Draw the Boundaries of Our Cage

•June 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

With only a few weeks until the start of Phish’s summer tour, I get excited and want to nerd out with the #twibe and just talk about Phish’s music. So I posed a question on twitter out of general curiosity:

Lots of great answers came in from folks, with many of my favorite ballads included: “Dirt,” “Fast Enough For You,” “Billy Breathes,” “Lifeboy.” I had a good conversation with @Mr_Completely about subjective taste and how I don’t care one bit for “Anything But Me.” But I also got some interesting replies that I initially felt were outside the genre of “ballad,” at least as far as we define it in the Phish world: “Esther,” “Tela,” “Frankie Says,” “Nothing.” And even the (perhaps) tongue-in-cheek response “Lengthwise” left me thinking “well, maybe that IS a Phish ballad!”

So…what do we mean when we say Phish ballad?

The answer, of course, is tenuous and subjective, and every phan is free to entirely disagree with me on these points. Yet when we use words like “ballad” or “anthem” or any other number of genre designations, we are discursively engage with a term that spans many types of music and sometimes many centuries of Western thought.

Historically, the term ballad has meant many different things to many different cultures, and even within those cultures, it has meant different things at different times within different styles of music. Etymologically speaking, the word is derived from the Latin “ballare,” or “to dance.” Indeed, the ballad in medieval Europe was initially a song that accompanied a French dance. The French “ballade” was a fixed song type that dominated French secular song and poetry in the 14th and 15th centuries, while England had a 17th-century comic genre called “ballad opera.” We can start to see the literary nature of the term ballad, the idea that the words of the song are as much a governing part of the genre as the text.

The “folk ballad” was increasingly a song that told a long narrative story. In fact, the scholars who first started talking about ballads were more interested in the stories and formal structure of the texts—the tunes could even vary for a single ballad text! Music was just the vehicle for getting the story told. As such, early British examples are mostly strophic, meaning that every poetic verse uses the same repeating music. That doesn’t make for particularly exciting songs, but it does focus the listener onto the lyrics, since you don’t get distracted by the music in any way. A great example of these early ballads is “Cruel Sister,” which dates from probably the 18th century and was popularized by the British folk group Pentangle in 1970.

As you can hear from this version, the music to each verse is the same, although Pentangle at least keeps adding instruments to every verse, offering some variation (love that sitar!). But the elements are all there: long storytelling, an impersonal narrator, strophic form. Tempo isn’t so much a consideration, but the songs needed to be slow enough so that listeners could understand and follow the story. Starting in the 17th century, ballads were also forms of social commentary, a thread that the American folk movement of the 1950s and 60s would pick up.

mavourneenSo that’s the origin of the term, but what about its modern usage? As with so many musical ideas and terms, today’s ballads take a little from a variety of different musical traditions. The ballad became really popular in America via Irish music in the 19th century, which basically influenced all American popular music. Songs like “Kathleen Mavourneen” were distributed on broadsides, basically posters, so that people could sing them at home. This was also how a lot of ballads came to be known in writing—previously, many ballads were simply taught via oral tradition.

Since so many of these ballads were also sentimental songs, increasingly the ballad became a song of love, loss, death, nostalgia, and other deep human emotions. The narrator became less impersonal, the tragedy of the tale belonged to the lyrical self. This was especially true after the Civil War, when Americans craved a way to deal with their national grief and pine for the antebellum simplicity of American life. Notably, ballads weren’t used for dancing anymore, at least not the popular dances like waltzes, quadrilles, lancers, and so forth. By the early 20th century, Tin Pan Alley had taken control of American popular music, incorporating the ballad as a song type usually about love (sometimes lost). And since so much popular music was again for dancing in the wake of jazz and the popularity of broadway, the slower songs all gradually became known as ballads. The narrative ballad of the 18th century merged with the sentimental song or love song of the 19th century and became, in the 20th century, a new kind of ballad.

In the jamband world, the term “ballad” has its own history and tradition. The Grateful Dead have many ballads, but because the band members were huge folkies in the late 50s and early 60s, many Dead ballads harken back to the older idea of a narrative story told in simple forms. You end up with death ballads (“Black Peter”), murder ballads (“Jack Straw”), and hybrid love/death ballads (“Wharf Rat”). And of course you get slow love songs that, like the love songs of Tin Pan Alley, jazz, and early rock n roll, were called ballads (“Looks Like Rain”). But “Jack Straw” is fundamentally a different musical animal than “Black Peter” or any of the dozens of other Grateful Dead ballads. It’s got a relatively complex form with contrasting sections, and most importantly, it’s a fast rock tune (at least, fast by Grateful Dead rock standards). However, it is unmistakably a part of the ballad tradition, even though very few Deadheads would ever call it a ballad.

Increasingly, the “ballad” became the term for the slow song that Jerry would sing late in the second set, after Drums>Space and usually just before the closer. Because the Dead were so well versed and steeped in the traditions of American song, and because Hunter was so well read, almost all the songs that Deadheads call “ballads” in the Grateful Dead songbook have clear connections to the historical genre. They all deal in some way with love, loss, or death.

To be honest, I can’t think of a single slow Dead song that doesn’t share some characteristic with the traditional ballad, whether in its strophic narrative structure (“Lady With a Fan”), its focus on death (“Days Between”), or topics of love (“Standing on the Moon”) and/or sadness (“To Lay Me Down”). Hell, even “Friend of the Devil,” a bluegrass tune derived from the murder ballads of the blues, got slowed down in the late 1970s, as if to accentuate its newfound identity as a ballad.

So now to Phish. What makes a Phish ballad? Clearly there are the songs that fall into the previously enumerated categories and styles: love songs (“Waste”), songs about loss (“Dog-Faced Boy”), and love/death hybrids (“Joy”). And those are all at a slow tempo, with typical verse/chorus forms, true to the conventions of the genre in the 20th century. Yet the themes of many Phish slow songs are often of an existential variety, in large part because of the nature of Tom Marshall’s writing. It’s tough to say exactly whether “Strange Design” or “Dirt” or “Mountains in the Mist” are sad songs, or love songs, or songs about God or fame or the modern condition or what. There’s often a “you” in these lyrics, but it’s not always clear that the “you” is the object of a romantic relationship. That’s part of why we love them, because we can graft our own conception of “you” onto these shells. “Shout your name into the wind” is a gorgeous image for the affection of a loved one, but the metaphor of “Dirt” is of the narrator withdrawing from the pressures of the world and, because of that, will “never hear your voice again.” And since being buried in dirt most often happens when we die, is it a song about death?

I would say that all those songs dealing with life’s heaviness in the last paragraph—plus “Fast Enough For You” and “Lifeboy” and “Swept Away/Steep” and “All of These Dreams” and “If I Could” and “Billy Breathes” and a few others—are all ballads. Of course there are plenty of slow songs in Phish’s repertoire that I would be hard pressed to call a ballad, “Ghost” being probably the most obvious, or “Prince Caspian” or “Theme From the Bottom.” Yet there are other slow Phish songs that are closer to the traditional ballad in musical style, like “What’s the Use?,” that I would also be reluctant to call a ballad.

Tempo is clearly not the defining characteristic of a Phish ballad in the same way that it was for the Dead. Phish ballads are also structurally conventional forms, at least as derived from the jazz/Tin Pan Alley/rock ballad. They are all verse/chorus songs, some with a bridge, some with a big ending guitar solo (perhaps a leftover of another bastardized genre, the power ballad). And for the most part, they travel in the well-trod harmonic and melodic language of rock and Tin Pan Alley popular song. There’s not a ton of jazziness or odd proggy harmonies full of dissonance and chromaticism. That’s not to say that there aren’t some really interesting harmonies—“Billy Breathes,” for example, features a chord progression that starts on the VI chord, which tricks your ear into hearing that as the tonic and allows for some interesting harmonic effects—but the chords are mostly diatonic triads, devoid of flat 5s and extended 7ths and 9ths.

One category of Phish song that some people called ballads in response to my tweet have a quiet dynamic level and often have a gentle rhythmic feel, both of which belie their relatively fast tempo. Moreover, these songs often use elements that we associate with musical psychedelia, such as modal writing rather than chordal, phase-shifted or otherwise altered timbres, and non-traditional song forms. In my opinion these songs are not ballads, they fall into their own category of slower psychedelic songs. It’s certainly possible to have a psychedelic ballad: Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” or the Allman Brothers Band’s “Dreams,” or even the Dead’s “Wharf Rat.”

But consider a Phish song like “Waves.” The song plays around with A mixolydian and while there are chord changes, there is no sense of goal-direction and arrival like there is in other Phish ballads. Even the one moment where arrival seems to occur, the transition between the bridge and verse (“and possibly won’t reach her ear”), it’s avoided. The harmony sets you up for a cadence in D major, but instead, you just keep floating on that A mixolydian riff. The structure of the song, too, is ephemeral, built on these aphoristic two-line verses separated by the same sets of riffs, and then a contrasting B section. But there’s no refrain, no chorus, no big harmonic or structural changes to signify development. Is “Waves” a ballad? Despite it’s relatively subdued feel, I’d say no.

In that boat, I’d add a song like “Frankie Says,” another song with a deceptively fast tempo hidden by an effortlessly lilting drum part and quiet dynamic. That’s contrasted with a song like “Roggae,” which has a similar psychedelic character, but has a verse/chorus form and goal-directed harmonic progression built on triadic chords. “Roggae,” I’d argue, is a ballad, even though many of us think of it in an entirely different category than, say, “Velvet Sea.”

Then there are a few outliers. “Tela” was Phish’s only slow song for nearly the first ten years of their existence, until they debuted “Fast Enough For You” in the fall of 1992. As Trey wrote in his thesis, he composed “Tela” specifically because it was out of his comfort zone, and it was the first song he ever wrote with someone else’s vocal (Page’s) in mind. So the song was consciously divergent from other Phish tunes at the time. “Tela” could easily be called a ballad: it’s slow and it’s a love song, perhaps it’s Phish’s most explicit love song other than “Waste” or, lyrically, “My Sweet One.” But there are some anomalies. The harmony is quite complex, with a sus4 chord, a minor 7th flat 5 chord, a ninth chord, and lots of mode mixture (which has a chromatic effect, for instance, switching from A major to A minor the C-sharp drops to C-natural). Those extended chords, along with the shuffle beat Fishman plays and the angular vocal melody all give the song a very jazzy feel, taking the tune outside the purview of the typical rock ballad.

The form of the song is also complex and atypical, it’s what theorist Brad Osborn would call terminally-climactic. There’s an instrumental introduction, verses, an instrumental B section, and then a big shift in key, feel, and affect as the song moves into its final section (“Tela, Tela, jewel of Wilson’s foul domain”). Now we’re in D major instead of A, the chords are all triadic and highly goal-oriented, but there’s just the one lyric and then a furious composed guitar solo. For me, “Tela” is a little too complex and atypical to be considered a ballad, in part because the ballad is such a standard song type, and therefore too much deviation from the genre makes it unrecognizable as such. Similarly, even though “Lengthwise” is a love song, slow, and strophic, it’s just too much of an oddity, a curiosity, to be a ballad.

Genre theorists talk about the idea of a “generic contract” between the musician and the listener. “Ballad” denotes a number of attributes that we should expect, but as an audience we have to allow for some deviation from and flexibility within those expectations. That’s what makes good music. But we can be confused if the music veers too far. In the case of Phish, I’d argue that confusion is something that we really value; we like Phish in part because it’s difficult to categorize their music into a genre per se. Yet the ballad is perhaps the one type of Phish song that does conform to genre expectations more than others. That may be one of the defining characteristics of a Phish ballad: it doesn’t sound like it could only be Phish.

Two final examples.

“Esther” is a story song that, lyrically, is very much like the old narrative ballads. It’s a semi-fantastical, supernatural tale. And it’s relatively slow, although like “Waves” and “Frankie Says,” its tempo is actually faster than you think because the drum part is quiet and gentle and there’s no backbeat. But “Esther” is too through-composed, like a prog rock song, to be a ballad. Like “Tela,” its harmonic relationships are complex and based on dissonant or chromatic relationships, and its structure is idiosyncratic: it sort of goes ABCDB, where A = “it was late one fall night,” B = “Esther tried in vain…” + composed piano/guitar solo, C = the flying jam, D = the nasty part of town, and then the final B = “When the morning came” + final guitar solo, which itself is a variant of the earlier solo.

Finally, could there be an instrumental ballad? Historically it’s happened: Chopin wrote four “Ballades” that were intended to be solo piano adaptations of the epic narrative ballads, and there’s always the iconic “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny, a.k.a. the song that plays at the end of La Bamba (spoiler alert: it’s the day the music died. Bye bye miss American pie).

I’ve dismissed “What’s the Use?” partly because of its psychedelic quality, and yet especially in the way it’s been played in 3.0 shows, it does have the other musical hallmarks of a ballad: goal-oriented triadic harmony, contrasting sections, and while there are no lyrics, the title conveys an existential crisis while the music has both sadness and hope. Its form is a bit anomalous to really be a ballad, but it’s close. Yet I’d argue that “I Am Hydrogen,” one of Phish’s earliest songs, is in fact a ballad. It’s got a verse, a contrasting B section, it’s slow, and it has the goal-oriented harmonic plan, albeit there’s a big chromatic section in the middle. Still, even that proggy touch merely serves as a transition from the B section back to the A.

This is all to say that none of this really matters at all. It’s just something fun that I thought about writing, and I haven’t blogged about Phish for a while. So feel free to engage and disagree or ask a question, I’m happy to talk endlessly about this stuff. After all, summer tour is just around the corner! Take me to another time…

From Your Ivory Tower, Inspired Me

•February 1, 2016 • 1 Comment

This past weekend, I gave a presentation at the Harvard Graduate Music Forum conference on my good friend Mike Hamad’s Phishmaps. The theme of the conference was “Musical Cartographies,” so I felt like this was a perfect topic. This was the first time that I’d given a scholarly presentation on Phish to other academics who were not themselves Phish- or Dead-heads. For me, it felt like a little bit of a coming out, because Phish is still so highly stigmatized in popular culture, and in academia.

Still, there’s been a shift among the younger generation of scholars that if you apply a rigorous scholarly apparatus to your subject, any and all aspects of popular culture should be examined and can yield good results. I hope that I’ve done that here. The first 20 minutes are me reading my paper (sorry for the vertical camera orientation!!) and then there’s about 10 minutes of Q&A. Professor Emily Dolan from Harvard is the session chair who introduces me and asks the first question.

Thanks to everyone who came to this, to everyone who cheered me on virtually, and to Etha Williams of Harvard for organizing a great conference.

And special thanks to my mom for videotaping the talk, even though she didn’t figure out how to zoom in until close to the end!

Keenly Aware That We’ve Broken Free

•July 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Phish, 7/25/15

The Forum, Inglewood, CA

image

Yeah, I don’t know why I wrote Walls “in” the Cave, either…

Indoor shows have a different vibe. Something about CK5 getting the full use of his lights and the way the sound system resonates and just the party atmosphere of the crowd makes a summer indoor show a treat. After a hot day in the low-90s and sun, it was a treat to step into the cool air conditioning of the LA Forum, a lovingly restored arena that is truly one of the nicer venues I’ve seen Phish in. With carpeted concourses, and an exterior vaguely reminiscent of the Hampton Mothership, this is a venue made for Phishy times.

Thanks to some brilliant iPhone subterfuge, we managed to get all four of our crew down to the GA floor as the lights went down. The boys walked out on stage and instantly caused a small riot to erupt in the Forum as Laura Olsher’s recorded voice informed us that we have been selected as the first astronauts to explore the planet Mars. I’m not sure what it is about “Martian Monster” but man, it gets people pumped! What a way to start a show, with a huge surge of excitement through the crowd and an intensely funky dance party.

Riding on that wave of energy, the band dropped a surprise second slot “Down With Disease.” It was clear that this was going to be a party tonight. Sure, it’s Saturday night and you expect some more party, “poppy” tunes, but this was no typical bro-fest “Sample” and “Bouncin'” night. This was a Saturday Night Special but for Phishheads. A wonderfully blazing type I “Disease” followed and peaked in glorious fashion, even including the rare vocal reprise at the end.

“Waiting All Night” and “Heavy Things” cooled everything down, but then the energy got right back up with a well-placed “Axilla” to get everyone’s blood pumping hard again. Another Bend repeat in “555” gave us a little more funk before two beloved first set tunes delivered nicely, “Limb by Limb” and “Ya Mar.” During the “Ya Mar” we got our taste of the first shenanigans of the night. Mike and Trey have been having some BFF moments throughout the tour, where Trey will walk over to Mike and they’ll play alongside each other or facing each other. This time, during the “Ya Mar” jam, they lay down on their backs while still jamming and bicycle kicked their legs in the air! What will this band not do? Their dorkiness is just so lovable, too.

Photo by @Tweeprise

Photo by @Tweeprise

The set closed with two higher-energy-than-normal versions of “Fuego” and “Walls of the Cave.” “Walls” especially had some nice huge peaks, and around this time I noticed Bill Walton, the lovable giant of the GD world, doing that thing where he extends his fingers out wide, almost like he’s a giant net absorbing the energy. Thanks for gracing us with your positivity and love Bill, we’re glad you had a good time. See you at Magnaball?

Big Bill

Big Bill

After taking “Blaze On” deep the previous night at Shoreline, the emergence of “No Men in No Man’s Land” to open the second set could only be harbinger of good things to come. Like “Blaze On,” this tune seems to betray much of the Grateful Dead sound that Trey absorbed for GD50; in this case, it sounds just like a May 1977 “Dancin in the Streets.” As some intrepid internet sleuths have realized, there’s also a Phishy precedent for this song, as it seems to have grown out of the 1/3/15 Miami “Disease” jam.

Either way, when Trey turns on the auto-wah effect for his solo, it’s resemblance to the late 70s disco funk of the Dead is undeniable – my friend and I kept singing the turnaround riff for “Dancin” over the jam and it fit perfectly. After a brief return of the vocals, Trey goes back to his usual tone and, like the previous night’s “Blaze On,” starts to move beyond the blues/funk/rock soloing that he stuck to for the Bend debut, and moves into some modal territory, quite befitting of a second set opener primed to jam. This isn’t a jam that is going to peak, it seems to instead go out and stay the course of dance funk with smaller arrival points along the way.

A final return of the vocals seemed to signal and ending, but just as they did the previous night on “Blaze On,” they start a brief outro jam that gets nice and quiet but is still propelled strongly by Fish and Mike, with Page on Fender Rhodes. In many ways, it seems like a mirror image of the previous night’s “Blaze On” jam, in fact. Trey locks into a nice strummed groove around 11:30 as everything is winding down into a nice psychedelia. It seemed like this might have been the starting point for something bigger ahead, but instead Trey started introducing some big distorted strums, and as Fishman peters out, Trey lets the space linger just a bit before jolting everyone into action with a huge “Carini.”

The emergence of “Carini” as a huge energy push and a major second set jam vehicle is one of my favorite song histories of 3.0. I love how the crowd goes apeshit anytime those chords start up. This tune has really grown into its own in this era, however this version didn’t really blow up in the jam. Trey settles on a major chord and effects a key change from Mike, and we get one of those blissy “Carini” jams that seem to crop up about 50% of the time this song comes around.

The beauty in this jam is that Fishman gradually speeds up the rhythm until finding his way into the “Tweezer” tempo, and Trey just starts playing descending pull-off riffs until one of them finally sticks, a perfect buttersegue -> “Tweezer.” This was a truly seamless segue, always a blast to hear them pull off, and the 1-2 punch of “Carini”->”Tweezer” was quite a spectacle to hear. Trey and Mike continued their shenanigans of facing each other in a duet, but this time, it really affected the sound. The jam started off very subdued, with Page on Rhodes and Trey noodling around. As Trey and Mike faced off, Mike started getting much more active as a “lead bassist,” and Fish dropped out to let Trey, Mike, and Page do their thing. But it’s Mike who really shines on this one.

Trey starts doing big strumming motions on his guitar, and Mike answers with big bass strums!! Strumming the bass!! Badass. Fishman matches with some big cymbal crashes, and this little interlude seems poised to launch into the next jam segment. But instead Trey finds himself playing the same note over and over again, which for some reason he decides he should turn into the opening of “My Friend My Friend.” That’s OK, I love this song, and if you’re gonna ripcord a “Tweezer” jam, might as well be with a gorgeous, well-liked, rarely-played composition. Plus the high energy and dark intensity of the second half of the song already matched the vibe of a show that included an “Axilla,” blazing first set “DwD,” and blowout “Walls of the Cave.”

“Roggae” came next in the breather spot, and I will always gladly hear this song. Such a treat, such a beautiful tune and jam. Trey was especially active during the jam with more of the long melodic lines that he’d practiced so much for GD50. One of the things I’ve realized is that the modal, moderate tempo jams are where the GD50 influence is perhaps most audible. Trey’s practicing for jams like “Dark Star,” “Bird Song,” “Wharf Rat,” and “Half Step” are clearly audible in “Wingsuit,” “Slave,” “Waves,” “Roggae,” and “Reba.”

“Number Line” may have been a disappointment to some here, but I was happy with the call, especially since it was Kuroda’s birthday. But even more so because Trey absolutely killed the solo on this. He moves into the highest register of his guitar early, and then builds the energy back up with great circular riffs that finally end with a big fast strumming fest, again more of the style from GD50 of fast strumming to cap a jam. And then the “Slave.”

Ahhh….”Slave.” So perfect to end this blistering high energy show. The jam was nothing exceptional for “Slave”s, which is of course to say that it was amazing and exactly what you want out of the song. Slow, methodical build to the raging peak. And more really fast strumming at the end way up high on the neck.

What no one was expecting was that Phish would come out after a nice long 80 minute set that had a “Tweeprise” encore looming (so we thought) and drop a monster encore. So naturally, they gave us a “YEM” encore. Boom. Place erupts yet again, high fives, general mayhem. Trey has some serious difficulty getting through the opening arpeggio section, missing quite a few notes. The pre-nirvana space was slightly longer, with some great long droning tones, and then the rest of the composition progressed as normal.

But when the jam started, things started getting out of hand. Trey and Mike continued their silliness after the tramps segment with Trey walking over behind Mike, and then putting his guitar over Mike’s head! He then reached under Mike’s arm and started playing his guitar, which was in front of Mike and on top of his bass, while he was standing behind Mike! Amazing to see, and even more amazing to hear because he didn’t skip a beat.

Photo by @Tweeprise

Photo by @Tweeprise

But then, to up the ante, Trey moved his left hand to Mike’s bass neck, and Mike started playing Trey’s guitar neck with his left hand. And then they switched hands! So now Mike was strumming Trey’s guitar while Trey played the neck, and Trey was picking Mike’s bass! Unbelievable, and still they managed to peak the jam! Many of us know Mike to be a highly capable guitarist himself, but we’ve never seen Trey on bass before.

After this solo peaks, Trey takes off his guitar to start dancing, but instead reprises his antics from Vegas and moves over Fish’s drums to play the toms while Fish concentrates on the snares and high-hat. Page and Mike engage in a big duel, which is fantastic, and then Mike walks over to Page and they start playing each other’s instruments, with Mike doing a halfway decent job of playing the clav! Insanity. Vocal jam and no “Tweeprise” and we’re out.

What was really remarkable about this show was not only the playfulness, but the consistent high energy from start to finish, even sustained through the slower tunes. The band seemed locked into not only each other, but into what the crowd wanted and was feeling, and that’s what makes the best Phish shows.

imagePost show, our LA host insisted that, even though it was a bit out of the way, we stop for the best Al Pastor tacos in LA. He was absolutely right.

Caliphornia Love

•July 28, 2015 • 2 Comments

cali pin

7/24/15, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA

I left my setlist book at the apartment we were staying at in San Francisco before the Shoreline show. I’m a little obsessed with setlists, so this was a bit of a letdown. Rather than, as I’ve done in past instances, decide to write the set down on a random piece of paper, I used my notes app. And just for fun, decided to add an emoji to every song.

I was on the lawn for Shoreline, which as many people know is not the place to be at Shoreline for pretty much anything except needing a place to freak out. Would being in the pavilion have made “The Line” opener any better for me? I can’t imagine it would have. I’m sorry, I know there are “The Line” lovers out there, but I am not one of them. I never really liked the song even going back to the Wingsuit set, I couldn’t really figure out its place in a show or, broadly, within the entire Phish canon. However, like the other few songs I don’t really care for, I tolerate “The Line,” and will smile and enjoy the short jam at the end.

imageBut not as an opener. “The Line” might be the worst show opener I’ve ever seen in 125 shows. #srsly. Openers need to infuse the crowd with energy, get things going, get everyone pumped for what’s about to happen. They need to be high energy rockers/funk machines (Bag, PYITE, Kill Devil Falls, Moma), or they need to be so surprising and unexpected that we just go apeshit for them (anything rare, surprise covers). “The Line” is neither. I immediately felt the collective expectant breath leave the venue when this started, and for me personally, even with a string of fun high energy tunes to follow in “Moma Dance” and “Kill Devil Falls,” I couldn’t fully get into the groove of this show. “Yarmouth Road” was a touch too slow in tempo and dragged, and the “Undermind” that followed was awesome and funky but continued to keep the energy a little low. We needed a major infusion of full-on Phishy positive energy to save this set.

So I’ve never been so happy to hear “Free” (note the smiley face). A song that has been relatively standard in its versions in 3.0, “Free” was precisely what I needed to rip me out of my slump and get this set moving again. To then play the tour’s first “Reba,” in the first set where the song belongs, was absolutely the best follow-up I could have hoped for. Sheer joy and bliss. At the time I was going for 3 wide-eyed amazement emojis and a fist bump, but someone on twitter noted that it looked like 3 face punches. Either way, yes. The jam did not necessarily break any new ground harmonically or formally, but Trey made a beautiful, well-thought out ascent to the “Reba” peak, and his tone sounded especially clean and a little treble-heavy at the top of the range, soaring out above the rest of the band. It was just another example of these thoughtfully crafted melodic lines that Trey played in abundance in Bend.

“46 Days” was a strong choice for closer, with more of the Trey/Mike looseness and shenanigans that started in Bend: Trey leaving his spot onstage to stand right next to Mike, facing him as they play off each others lines. So set 1 took a little while to get its legs under it, but it was off and running from “Free” through the end. Set 2, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.

shoreline

Photo by Dave Vann

As soon as I heard the loping New Orleans groove of “Blaze On” amble along, I immediately started dance walking, and naturally, put my sunglasses back on. I got my night shades on. Some cheers from the crowd on the “chemtrails” line. But it seemed only appropriate to play a song with such a distinctive 80s Dead groove in a venue created for the Dead in the 80s. And I love hearing Trey smile in his voice when he sings the line about screwing up two more times.

imageImmediately it became clear that this was not just another chance to play one of the new songs, but a true set 2 opener that would be a jumping off point for serious deep improvisation. The end jam strayed from the standard pentatonic blues/rock soloing we heard in Bend and went immediately into a modal territory, with Trey exploring out along the mixolydian mode giving the jam a distinctively “jammy” feel. Indeed, Mike and Page also seemed to be settling in for a long haul, with Mike weaving polyphonic lines around Trey and Page exchanging chords in rhythmic counterpoint with Fishman. Trey started adding in some cool delay effects and upping the distortion a bit towards the end, often descending or circling downward from tonic to emphasize that mixolydian feel. Even just considering the normal end jam of the song, this was already leaps beyond the Bend debut.

Trey then settled into some chunky distorted chording, and reprised the vocals. “Awesome version!” I thought, thinking we’d get the inevitable slide into “Disease” or “Rock and Roll.” But no, that was not where they were headed. They decided to make a “Blaze On” outro jam, immediately going very quiet with Page switching over to Rhodes and Fishman keeping up the beat but much quieter. Trey and Page began a tightly interwoven polyphonic pattern, with Trey offering intense little rhythmic patterns of psychedelic soloing. With the envelope filter turned on, there was again that great new tone acquired from GD50 that gave everything a trippy sheen. This little 3-minute outro jam was exactly the sort of thing that only happens when the band is ON, and it was clear that this night, this set, things were going to get really weird and good.

“Twist” ambled out of the ether as the “Blaze On” spaciness faded away in electronic sound from Page. Lots of premature “woo”-ing. Not until the chorus, people! This jam wasted absolutely no time in blazing new territory. Trey turned on HEAVY distortion and the Jerry auto-wah to create this very gritty guitar tone. At the time, I called it a “Gates of Hell” filter. Mike matched it with his own meatball envelope tone and they jammed heavily on the minor pentatonic before Trey ventured back out into modal space, creating a very sinister sort of jam. This was just an intensely psychedelic space, with Fishman eventually falling back into a slow, steady rock beat, far from the rhythmic intricacy of the normal “Twist” jam. Although they were harmonically very much in “Twist” jam territory, there were many parts of it that felt quite far from “Twist.” And Page, god bless him, stayed on the baby grand the entire time, which I thought was brilliant given how distorted and electronically altered both Trey’s and Mike’s tones were during this segment.

Mike turns off the meatball and Trey returns to the “Twist” riff, but then Mike jumps up to scale degree 6, pushing the jam out of its comfortable harmonic ground, before falling back to settle on the fifth, and we get a blissful new jam in G major. This was all Mike’s doing, and such a big push really felt like an uplift, both because Trey returned to his normal soloing tone, but also because they literally moved the harmony up by 7 half-steps. The rest of “Twist” jam was a classic, slowly building 3.0 plagal peak jam with a nice moderate tempo (plagal meaning they emphasize the subdominant, or IV chord, sometimes substituted by the bVII). Trey really amped it up right before the 13-minute mark with some aggressive strumming that had the effect of pushing this jam even further, and followed it with these beautiful circular riffs ending with a big octave leap upwards. More stratospheric peak jamming, and Page really providing the perfect chordal counterpoint, still on baby grand the whole time. Trey just erupts with the hose at the end of this one, and then everything descends into electronic weirdness before “Light” bursts forward.

At this point, everyone knows “Light” is just another brief stopping point on what has been an incredible half hour so far of improvisational brilliance. Sure enough, after Trey plays the climactic triplet riff, they immediately bring everything down into a mellow, quiet space. There’s none of the usual gradual winding down from the big high energy of the song, just an immediate sense that they need to get back to improvisational work. Trey starts building but there are a few excellently dissonant notes sprinkled through his melodies, and Mike picks right up on them. Throughout the latter portion of the second set, it was really clear that Mike was taking charge on the jams, especially during the “Hood” (more on that later).

The jam changes character with a little minor key mixture around 7:30, and Page appropriately switches over to clav, while Fishman goes for a more tom-heavy beat and Trey puts a darker distorted tone on his guitar. Everything gets murky and funky for a little bit in here, and it’s all about Trey and Page playing off each other in here. You can barely tell who is playing what, their tones are relatively matched and so in sync. Right around this point Mike and Trey sense a move back to a major key, and Trey starts doing some of that Randall’s Chalkdust/Tahoe Tweezer pop song strumming. Ten minutes in and we’ve already had three separate jam segments! Everyone is clearly feelin’ IT tonight. Trey keeps focusing on the poppy IV-I strumming while Page is soloing around on his Fender Rhodes, and eventually Trey starts playing some of those very countrified bluesy riffs that are now part of his natural finger patterns after so much GD50 practicing. We heard them a bunch in Bend, and here they were surprisingly in “Light.”

At this point both Fish and Mike hear Trey playing around with that country rock sound and decide to opt in, with Fishman tightening up and speeding up the beat and Mike going for a classic I-V-I bass pattern. I think what happened here is that Mike and Fishman both heard Trey going for that fast country blues and decided to match his sound (Page, too, switches back to baby grand), but it all ends up sounding VERY much like an “I Know You Rider” jam. I don’t know if any of the band was intending that, although I’m sure most of them realized it once they were in it, but the effect was quite perceptible among the Shoreline faithful, who responded with tremendous applause and high fives. I heard at least three people around me say “this sounds like a Dead tune” or “Rider jam!”

An amazing moment, even without actually playing or even teasing the tune. Yet before there could be any ambiguity about whether they would or would not play a Dead tune, Fish wound the tempo back down, Trey briefly teased “Twist” again, and then started playing what I felt was the perfect call in this position, “Joy.”

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Photo by Dave Vann

I don’t understand the “Joy” haters. This is your song too!! The solo on “Joy” is just so, well, joyful, one of Trey’s best slow composed lines. The song is a ballad, sure, but the ending jam is such a celebratory energetic moment that it doesn’t code ballad. It is almost like a “Slave” peak or “Hood” peak in condensed form. Trey put an exclamation point on this jam with more of the fast strumming that he used in GD50 to peak many of those jams.

At this point, there had to be a big classic Phishy tune to anchor the 4th quarter. As a perfect counterpoint to the extensive improv in the first half of the set, “Harry Hood” bounced its way into existence. First of all, thank you Jon Fishman for playing the intro on high-pitched toms again instead of the hi-hat like you did last year. I appreciate you trying something new, but it didn’t work, and I’m glad you now see the light. Also, maybe it’s the fact that he needs the woodblocks for tunes like “Blaze On,” but I’m so happy to hear the woodblocks being used more again. Fish still has his pared down set but it sounds like he’s added just a couple more drums back into the fold.

“Hood” jam starts out normally, with Trey playing some beautiful melodies in counterpoint with Page’s piano melodies. But right around 7:30 Mike takes over. The progression on “Hood” jam is I-V-IV in D, roughly corresponding to the words “good,” “good,” “Hood” in the lyrics. Yet Mike stays on the IV, interrupting the harmonic rhythm of the jam, which gives Trey the idea to play around with the flat 3 (flat 7 of IV), giving everything both a minor key feel and a modal, jammy feel. Mike picks up on this and immediately plays a descending minor line back to tonic, and Page starts accompanying with minor chords. Fishman appropriately abandons the feathery ride cymbals of “Hood” jam and goes for a more active pattern, and soon Trey and Mike abandon the minor key idea and instead move to a mixolydian pattern. Suddenly we’re in a typical 3.0 plagal jam AGAIN, but now in the middle of “Hood”! Fully type II and unrecognizable from the normal “Hood” jam even though we’re still in D. Mike ramps things up with a few of his earth-shattering pedal tones, and Trey starts with the long sustained tones. Page keeps concentrating on the IV chord, giving the whole jam a suspended feeling, like it’s floating above the harmonic grounding (which it sort of is), and Mike’s pedals seemed to light a fire under Trey and Fish, who respond appropriately with bursts of energy.

This all dies down eventually, and Trey returns to the light strumming of “Hood” jam, while Fishman switches back to the fast, light ride cymbal that is the trademark of the early stages of “Hood” jam just as everyone finally returns to tonic. It’s a perfectly wonderful segment of playing that illustrates just how locked in the band is with each other, only three shows into tour, taking one of their most iconic jams into a decidedly atypical territory (although atypical “Hood”s going type II was one of the main plot lines of 2014). I feel good about Hood.

They could’ve ended right then, but the classic “Cavern” to close seemed so appropriate after the blistering displays of improv throughout the set. Trey stumbled through an overly dorky “thanks everybody that was just so fun thank you thank you thank you!” — he clearly was just overcome with excitement and could barely figure out how to describe how awesome they felt that set was. That was one of my favorite parts of the show, when the band lets you know how good they thought it was, too. Trey was bouncing all over and doing his jumping kick step rock star thing during the “Character Zeroencore.

Bend saw some great interplay and of course all the new songs, but Shoreline is where it felt like they finally let the improv beast loose. Of course, going indoors the next night, everything finally came together: the jamming, the energy, the new lights, the sound, the general feel of an intense Phish show. I love outdoor summer shows, but there’s just something about Phish in an arena – they’ve perfected playing to a room that size. Going indoors in L.A. delivered the exclamation point to this West Coast run.

 

Level Headed Boy, Ya Better Bend

•July 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Bend

Tour openers have a ton of ambiguity surrounding them. With nearly 6 full months off, and with its lead guitarist practicing 5+ hours a day to play in a different band, who knew what Phish Summer Tour 2015 would have in store? Traditionally tour openers have a bit of rust around the edges, understandably, but in recent years they have also slayed: the boring first set of Worcester 2012 led to one of the best second sets of tour, and last year in Mansfield featured a legendary Hood and righteous Ghostapaug segue.

Yet this year was different. With Trey showing such prowess and mid-tour polish at the Fare Thee Well shows, and especially after he took charge in Chicago, the narrative for 2015 changed. We didn’t really know what to expect from Trey in Chicago other than we knew he’d do well by us; he did that and more. The story changed from “would GD50 impact Phish at all?” to “how much will GD50 impact Phish?” Some people (not me) were convinced Dead tunes would show up in Phish’s setlists, others felt that Trey’s style and tone would reflect the months he spent studying not only Jerry’s playing but also Jerry’s vast influences, especially 50s rock, Bakersfield country music, bluegrass, and electric blues (remember Trey’s quip in Bittersweet Motel about not growing up listening to Del McCoury? I’m guessing he did a lot of that in the last 6 months). If GD50 was a warmup for Phish 2015, then what shape would Phish’s music take?

What seems most clear to me after the first two shows of the summer is that the GD50 influence is perhaps most apparent in Trey’s songwriting, not in his playing (and certainly not in any incorporation of Dead tunes into the setlist). Not knowing necessarily what to expect, fans lucky enough to gain entry to the toughest tickets of summer were treated to seven Phish debuts, including four original compositions and three tunes from side projects. In a way it felt a bit like 2/26/03, with the band introducing a bevy of new material in the first set, but the difference here was that it’s a band showing how vibrant they still are: even on top of the brand new album from last year AND the ten new instrumentals debuted on Halloween, they’ve still got more new material to share with us.

So what it came down to, for a phan in Bend, was this: if you liked the new songs, you liked Bend. If new tunes aren’t your thing and you just wanted to kick out to your favorite familiar jams, you might have been a touch let down. Not to say that there weren’t plenty of moments on established songs. The first night first set “Sand” was the most perfect early set energizer, getting everyone into a dancey mood after an “eh” “Sample” opener. Standard versions of “555″ and “Rift” followed, the latter with some minor Trey botches, leading to some major botches during “Horn.” Rust around the edges, but that’s OK.

When “Devotion to a Dream” started, I wasn’t really feeling the setlist so far, other than the oddly placed “Sand.” I like all those songs, but it felt like they were shaking the dust off of Phish so far, rather than getting into the meat of things. Perhaps it’s just that now with an additional few years of new material in the repertoire, there is going to be less room for more of those classic first set tunes I was hoping for: “Sloth” or “PYITE” or “Reba” or “Mango Song” or even something later like “Vultures” or “Saw It Again.” But “Devotion” is where I first heard the GD50 influence on Trey’s playing.

The “Devotion” jam starts pretty basic, as per usual. But immediately, Trey is already starting to string longer runs of notes together in melody. What I’m hearing in his playing is a greater emphasis on longer, meandering melodic lines, exploring out along scales in a more continuous, less rhythmically broken up style of soloing. This is in contrast to the more deliberate style of phrasing that Trey has become very accustomed to using in the last few years, where he is creating interesting rhythmic melodic phrases and structuring them using somewhat formalistic organizational patterns. Things like AABA melodies where everything is invented on the spot (like one of the sections of the Randall’s “Chalkdust”), or creating periodicity where a line is played, repeated, and then expanded on in nice, even 2- and 4-bar patterns.

In this “Devotion” jam, which seems as rare a place as any to encounter new improvisational styles, Trey avoids those nice even periods and just keeps playing. His fingers know the scales and patterns, and here’s where we hear the other element of practicing Grateful Dead songs for so long: Trey has been practicing fingering patterns that fit into Jerry’s style, and especially the music Jerry was mostly influenced by. Bluegrass, country, the wild style of Scotty Stoneman, the rock twang of Bakersfield. “Devotion” already has that quality to it, it sounds like an outtake from Trey’s country rock musical Hands on a Hardbody. So Trey is playing these longer melodic segments, inserting an occasional pitch from related modes for color to spice up those blues/rock scales. Yet he also seems to have a good sense of overall direction. While his short phrases aren’t necessarily the same, his long-term sense of direction led to a few really fantastic, classic “release” moments over the course of his soloing this weekend (especially on “Stash” and “Maze” from night 2). Try to listen to this “Devotion” and tell me it’s not the best version of that song you’ve heard.

And of course the new material: “Blaze On.” Oh man. When it started, my Deadhead friend joked to me “Iko Iko or Women R Smarter?!” It really did sound like that classic NOLA groove, it’s practically a Little Feat song! The lyrics are super fun too, another of Tom’s “take me as I am, I’m kinda a fuck up” lyrics. Yet the chorus has a great singalong, feel-good quality: “You’ve got your nice shades on / and the worst days are gone / so now the band plays on / you’ve got one life, blaze on!” For the record, I will be singing “night shades” instead of “nice shades” because that’s how I sung it the night of the show.

Set 1 finished with an expectedly short “Tube” and an expectedly funky, fun, but nothing out of the ordinary “Wolfman’s.” Set 2 brought more of the dance party feel – it was a very Saturday Night Special kind of show. “Ghost” hinted at a tiny bit of an extension beyond its normal bounds before dropping into “Birds of a Feather,” another tune that showcased Trey’s slightly modified soloing style. More long strings of melodic material, less of the choppy, highly rhythmic phrasing. Some “They Attack!!”s from Page. “Mike’s>Wedge” was fun but again, nothing out of the ordinary. More good soloing, and a slightly longer than usual build on the “Mike’s” jam that also saw a really interesting, chunky start to the jam, with Trey just adding a few little exclamatory chords and Page initially taking the lead on piano. “Wedge” featured an absolute shredder of a solo to finish it. Trey ended many of his GD50 solos with really fast strumming high on the neck, a signature Jerry move, which he did to put an exclamation point on “Wedge.”

The “Fuego” that followed hinted at going to the next level, but instead fell into the first slowdown of the set, the new Trey/Tom ballad “Shade. This is a pretty song, although it’s quite slow so it has the potential to be misplaced and hurt the flow of a set. But it is pretty, one of Trey’s prettiest vocal melodies. The new song that followed, “No Men in No Man’s Land,” was an altogether different kind of affair. Using the auto-wah feature that we know so well from Dead songs like “Estimated Prophet” and “Shakedown Street” gave “No Man’s Land” a very “Dancin in the Streets” circa 1977 groove. This song is all about Page on percussive clav and Trey laying down these funky, wah-wah grooves on top of a very steady dance beat from Fishman. This is the booty-shaker tune, this is the one that, post-show, I said “well everyone’s gonna like THAT song!” And we should, it’s sort of like a “Tube”/”Your Pet Cat” groove, the sort of thing we love. And of course big potential for a huge, peak-y jam, with Trey using the auto-wah effect during his solo.

Continuing the dance party Saturday night vibe, the band executed an almost-perfect segue into “Weekapaug,” although Fish had to stop the beat and start up the new one instead of moving seamlessly between the two. Either way, it was a perfect slow-down segue into “Boogie On” that kept the party going. “Chalkdust” reclaimed its old usual spot as set closer, unfortunately, as I was hoping for some set 2 opener monstrosities this summer. Maybe we’ll still get those. An odd but lovely “Theme” served as the sole encore, and Phish left the stage around 9:40pm, 20 minutes before the hard curfew.

The effects of sun and sand are hard to understand: one of the things that’s tough to convey about this run was the early show time, late sunset, and of course the amazing river viewing for those shut out of the show. Literally I took this picture from the back of the lawn during the first set, night 2. imageWhat a way to get shut out of a show! Back to my original point: there was very little darkness for these shows. The second set opened with the sun setting, and only during the meat of the second set was there enough dark for CK5 to really get to work on his smaller, venue-resized rig. This was really apparent on the second night, as the second set opened with three quite mellow but unbelievably beautiful tunes: “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing”->”Waves”>”Wingsuit.”

“A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing” was a majestic journey, with Trey again exploring more melodically exciting areas of pitch space, rather than the usual long tones and whale-call jamming that characterizes this song. The end saw a brief turn to a major key space before settling into a mellow groove to take the song into “Waves.” With the sun still turning the sky a variety of shades of pink and orange, “Waves” seemed the perfect followup, and a great place for Trey to showcase his mellifluous jamming style. The peak was truly magnificent on this, and following the return to the lyrics, the band ventured into a very spacey ambient space, with Fishman maintaining a steady fast (but really quiet) beat, Page adding some electronic noises, and Mike dropping one of those huge bass pedal bombs.

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“Wingsuit” continued the theme of majestic, modal jams, and seemed to really fit the set to the surroundings. Although not quite as powerful as some versions from 2014, this was outstanding after the opening two tunes. What we probably didn’t need right after this was another mellow ballad, but I guess the band was feeling that vibe, and went with “Farmhouse.” I was not a fan of this placement — following the opening mellow beauty of this show, this is where a mean, big improv monster would have done really nicely. I wanted “Bowie” so bad in that spot. But then we got a “Simple” and all that dark, dirty, nasty jamming came out.

“Simple” did what it usually does, but during the jam, Mike stepped on the fightbell, Page played one of those ascending electronic glissandos, and Trey took over. Starting by playing a series of punctuating, loudly dissonant chords (that sort of reminded me of the 10/20/13 “Tweezer” “screech chords”), Trey gradually started introducing a sinister electronic tone to his guitar playing, getting a deep, low groove going with a looping sounds repeating. This was scary, evil Phish at its best, dissonant dark and dirty. And then to cap it off with a blistering “First Tube” that saw Trey playing more direct melodies than his usual big loops of sound that he builds was a great closer.

Another odd encore choice came with the “Bathtub Gin,” a great version that soared to a peak and then fizzled out. With 20 minutes to spare until the curfew, I was really hoping for the Hood that seemed to be looming all weekend (we all drove by Mt. Hood on the way into Bend for pete’s sake!) but alas…

I wanted to address the new songs in set 1, plus the great versions of “Stash” and “Maze,” but now we gotta run to get to Shoreline! So I will save those thoughts for a later post. But all you really need to know about the first set new songs is MERCURY. Be ready.

In Defense of Trey

•March 8, 2015 • 2 Comments

grateful-dead-illo-bb2-2015-billboard-650I came across this rather ignorantly written article, which among other things wrongly assumes that the Dead could have avoided this ticket debacle by simply opting out of Ticketmaster sales and doing the whole show mail order (that wasn’t even how it worked in the 80s!). But the author also offers a complaint that I’ve seen argued a number of times in all the controversy surrounding the Dead’s shows this summer: that the choice of Trey Anastasio was made entirely to appeal to Phish fans to increase sales and buzz. Many people have responded by pointing out that the “core four” chose Trey, that Phil made it clear they all thought Trey would be best for them, and that Trey has performed the Dead’s music many times and always really well. But here’s another thought:

There’s no way Trey alone could generate the kind of buzz that these shows have garnered, nor will the crowd be all Phish phans.

Consider that Phish has not sold out every show on their recent NYE, fall, and summer tours, only select ones. Consider that even in NYC, which is probably Phish’s biggest market based on east coast location, there were only between 15,000-20,000 people at each of the Randall’s Island shows last summer. And consider that when Phish threw a festival on July 4th weekend in 2011, the same weekend as these Dead shows this summer, they only got about 35,000 to come to an easily accessible venue in Watkins Glen.

On the surface, sure, it would seem that maybe the Dead felt they needed someone with the “star” power of Trey to fill a venue like Solider Field. Let’s just say hypothetically that everyone who went to SuperBall (35,000) would go to all three of these shows – that’s basically half of the 70,000 that Soldier Field holds. Again, this is the most people that Phish have been able to attract to any of their shows since they returned in 2009.

But SuperBall (and it’s more or less equally attended predecessor Festival 8) were camping festivals featuring eight sets of Phish. This is just Trey. And as it’s becoming increasingly clear, not all Phish fans are Deadheads. In fact, many phans, especially those who’ve come on board during the 3.0 era, don’t really care about the Dead. While I don’t pretend to imagine how many of that potential 35k this excludes, let’s just say for argument’s sake 5,000.

Those festivals cost about $200 for a camping and music pass. Most people drove given its east coast location. Average the cost for 2 people of gas and tolls (maybe $100?), 2 tickets, and food, and you’re looking at a nice little July 4th weekend around $600 for a couple. For Chicago, however, many will be flying in and staying at hotels. For 2 people, let’s assume a $200 round-trip ticket, a $150 a night hotel room if you booked before the announcement ($500 total after taxes), food, drink and recreational activities in a major city around $200 per person for the weekend (less if you’re being frugal, but potentially more if you wanna eat at a nice place in one of the best restaurant cities in the world). That’s already $1300 for two people BEFORE tickets! And if you got the cheapest seats available, that’s $70 per person after fees ($420 for two for all three shows).

In other words, Chicago will be waaaaayyyyyy more expensive than one of the festivals. Let’s say that eliminates half the remaining interest. So now we have about 15,000 Phishheads.

But there’s also the fact that plenty of Phishheads who are also Deadheads just plain don’t want to go to this. I’ve seen this online quite a bit – people who love both bands but don’t feel the need to hear this for a number of reasons. Let’s say that knocks another 1,000 phans out.

Obviously I’m just making up these numbers, any of them could be completely off (so don’t feel the need to suggest that I’m wrong!) and the reality could be totally different. The pull of nostalgia might convince people to ignore these issues and just go, and it’s certainly possible that there are more phans than went to SuperBall who are interested in Chicago. But as I think I’ve shown, that’s a highly problematic assumption. There are so many factors that, based on my own sense of the phanbase pulse, are probably going to keep Phishheads away.

So who are the 300,000 people who wanted the meager 10% of the total tickets available through mail order? My guess is that people have come out of the woodwork. Spurred by the pressure of not missing “the last” performance of the core four, Deadheads who didn’t necessarily go to the Dead’s shows in 2004-2009 are willing to throw down a lot of money and effort to make this happen. These are fans who didn’t really care about Furthur, don’t really go for DSO, but are suddenly awash with the realization that this is the last time to see the Grateful Dead.

And that’s the thing that I think is the biggest issue, and that the author of the aforementioned article actually did get right: this is NOT the Grateful Dead, and the use of that name is the reason these shows have gotten overblown with attention and demand.

Bob Weir himself said that he didn’t think they would be billing this band as the Grateful Dead, but in fact that is the name on the ticket, and that’s what scalpers, authors of articles on both major media and clickbait-y websites, and Chicago Bears season ticket holders glommed on to. They don’t know that, although this is being billed as a “reunion,” Phil, Bobby, Mickey, and Bill played together frequently from 2002-2004 and again in 2008-2009, and most of those as “The Dead.” They don’t care that Bob and Phil have been touring together for the past 5 years as Furthur, a band with no other original members but arguably musically better. They don’t know that the last time the core four played together, reviews were mixed.

All they know is that a band that hasn’t appeared on a venue marquee in 20 years is reunited for the last show. And that means a pay day.

And it’s this that has driven the rampant speculation and absurd ticket gouging that is currently happening. Not the inclusion of Trey Anastasio and maybe the extra 10,000 Phishheads he’s bringing to this party.

As I’ve said on social media already, please please please do not purchase tickets off StubHub. And if you are lucky enough to have tickets and can’t go, please do not sell your tickets above face value or sell them to someone who isn’t planning to go. As the dates get closer, people will drop out and face value tickets will become available. I’m sure of this, although nowhere near as many as people who want to go. And the scalpers will be forced to lower their prices. This sounds like a pipe dream but it can, and does, happen.

Most importantly, I hope that all the negativity that’s out there now will blow over so that those who are there in attendance in Chicago will be able to have a good time celebrating the music they love with people they love.

Live Review: Nonesuch 50th Anniversary at BAM (a.k.a. my dream 48 hours)

•September 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Nonesuch Records 50th Anniversary Celebrationnonesuch

September 9, 2014:

Steve Reich – Music For 18 Musicians

September 11, 2014:

Elliott Carter – Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord; Charles Ives – Songs and “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No. 2; George Crumb – Ancient Voices of Children

Basically, you couldn’t ask me to come up with a better 48 hours of music perfectly suited to my tastes. Although I could’ve done without the Carter…

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“I’ll take your ticket stubs if you didn’t like minimalism!” I yelled outside the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Tuesday night during intermission. I was being serious—I knew that there were probably a few people who perhaps had read a preview in the Times or the New Yorker or (if they fancy themselves hip) the Village Voice about this landmark performance, and decided to go just because the tastemakers (rightly) said they should go.

Steve Reich. Philip Glass. Onstage together for the first time in nearly 40 years. Some ancient dispute had kept them estranged for all those years, and now they were going to be onstage, together, playing their music with their respective ensembles and also playing each other’s music. Someone read about this and bought tickets blindly, without doing any research (not even a simple YouTube viewing), maybe just because they wanted to say they went. But they had no idea what the music would sound like. And they did not like it.

I saw my target. A couple in their 50s, dressed not at all conservatively, looking very much like the Brooklynite type that would enjoy this sort of momentous performance, yet their faces seemed disappointed, let down, even angered or frustrated. “If you’re not going back in I’ll take your ticket stubs” I offered. The man looked at me, and with a motion of disgust like he had just tasted something bitter, whipped the ticket stubs out of his breast pocket, gave them to me without a word, and quickly crossed the street. The folks happily smoking cigarettes next to me laughed. “I guess they didn’t like minimalism,” I joked.

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For this year’s Next Wave Festival, which is basically a celebration of all things amazing in modern music, dance, film, and theater every fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, they’re doing a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records, who made a name for themselves by releasing some of the best recordings of contemporary music in the late 60s and 70s, and then basically trumping the new music world in the 80s with recordings of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and other mainstays of the downtown scene. Oh and they released Wilco’s first few albums and the Black Keys’ albums, too. They’re a pretty big deal. And their album covers rock.

Kicking it off with three concerts featuring some of the most significant pieces of both Steve Reich’s and Philip Glass’s career seems only fitting, then, since so much of what we know of these two canonical figures of the late 20th century is because Nonesuch had the balls to record and release their music when others didn’t. For me, the choice of which concert to attend was clear: Tuesday night, featuring Reich’s seminal Music For 18 Musicians, a piece whose resplendent beauty, driving rhythms, and poignant melodies make it my favorite composition of this genre.

Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Grumpypants, I took my free seats on the mezzanine level, a few rows behind the giant afro of Reggie Watts who was taking it all in from a box stage left (all the Brooklyn cognoscenti were out for this one). This was my second time seeing the piece live, but my first time seeing Steve Reich and Musicians perform it. Both Reich and Glass had to create and participate in their own ensembles in the 70s because no one else would play their music. This group, whose average age looked to be over 50 (Reich himself is 75), breathes this music. They’ve been playing it for over 30 years, and it means more to them than just notes on the page. It is a living part of their musical identity. And you could hear it in their playing, dedicated Tuesday night to their late, longtime vibraphonist for this piece, James Preiss.

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BFF

Music For 18 starts with a pulse played on the marimba in straight eighth notes, setting the rhythmic tableau for the entire work. Additive rhythms grow and layer on top, melodic fragments enter the texture, and tremolo chords swell in the strings, bass clarinets, and singers. It’s a sound that is something of a signature of Reich’s instrumental music of the period, finding its most complete and mature expression in this piece. The work is divided into discrete sections with their own particular combination of instruments and register that creates differing overall timbres in each. I’m always shocked how, after the first three or four sections, the bass suddenly seems to fall out as the clarinets and strings all concentrate on higher registers, or how the affect changes dramatically when a shaker is added to the percussive drive about 2/3 of the way through.

Towards the end I realized how this performance clearly stood out from others I’ve heard and seen. In the final pulse section, a single chord rises deep in the bass clarinets, resonating as they play a slow, even tremolo on a single note, moving their bells towards and then away from the microphones. It’s a sound that they’ve played in many sections of the piece. It’s then taken up by the strings, and then the voices, but the group somehow managed to trade the sound so seamlessly and perfectly from each instrument group to the next. It was as if it was one giant swell, starting in the bass clarinets, morphing into the strings, then transforming and fading out in the voices. Like one instrument, swaying in color and sound. The piece got four curtain calls, deservedly so.

crumbOne of Nonesuch’s biggest recordings of its early years was George Crumb’s masterful Ancient Voices of Children, a virtuosic piece tailored to the unique vocal abilities of Jan DeGaetani. What better way to honor the late singer than to have another of Nonesuch’s amazing talents, soprano Dawn Upshaw, perform the piece alongside the original pianist, Gilbert Kalish? It was, after all, this recording that inspired Upshaw to pursue contemporary music styles, and she later became DeGaetani’s student. And just for good measure and to make sure I was extra, extra happy, they performed nine of my absolute favorite Ives songs, along with the tranquil and elegant third movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata. I didn’t even mind sitting through some mid-century serialism to get to that program.

The serialism is question was Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord, a combo that sounds as odd as it reads. Written in 1952 and only a few years after his breakthrough First String Quartet, this three-movement work features all of the cold dissonance of the postwar avant-garde without the expressivity of ultramodern, 1920s dissonance, and Carter is beginning to hint at the metrical complexity that will eventually define his sound. I found the first movement uninteresting, but the slower second movement was more intriguing, beginning with a unison and then each instrument adding one pitch as they build up the basic row, and later an impressive cadenza-like passage for the harpsichord. The third movement stayed with me the most, as the four instruments explored varying meters, creating a rhythmic polyphony that manages to remain controlled.

After that, Upshaw’s cool, unadorned tone was the perfect salve. Beginning with the relatively Victorian “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” Upshaw leaned into the piano crook, adding just the right amount of emotion so that it could be heard in her voice but wouldn’t come off as theatrical. This, I’ve found, is the toughest thing for singers to master, as too much in either direction can lead to a stiff performance, or a saccharine, melodramatic one. Upshaw found the perfect balance, her intonation as pure and clean as ever. She managed to change her tone and articulation for each of the various styles crammed into the miniature song “Ann Street,” even taking on a nasal quality as she sang “Narrow, yes, Ann Street.” And she used just the right amount of nostalgic melancholy in the war lament “Tom Sails Away,” making it sound as though she truly was remembering hazy, tear-filled “scenes of her childhood floating before her eyes.”

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The brilliant juxtaposition of this melancholy with the uplifting hymn quotations of Ives’s “Alcotts” movement was an inspired choice. Kalish, whose Ives interpretations are exquisite, seemed to realize this need for a quasi-religious healing after the tumult of “Tom Sails Away,” and he played the movement with all the passion and just the right amount of rubato to bring out all of the beautiful nuances of simple music making represented in this movement. Whether he tried to or not, he also brought out the strong motivic connections between this movement and the vocal melody to “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” which came later.

Upshaw’s finest and most revelatory performance was the funereal “Like a Sick Eagle.” Ives made an instrumental version of this song (as he did with many) and it features a violin sliding slowly and heavily between notes, truly giving the impression of a sickly bird. I’ve heard this sung on recordings, but I’ve never heard it sung the way Upshaw did. Her sliding tones were impeccable, sounding the most like the violin versions of any vocal rendition I know of. She knew exactly how long to stretch out the microtones between each pitch, each slide a calculated scale, not the haphazard scoops and quick glissandos of some singers. Equally astounding was Kalish’s performance on “The Cage,” playing the opening chordal vamp with a stronger sense of articulation, not just an even and lifeless presentation of six chords, and with a perfect final rolled chord, rather than the broken chord I’ve often heard.

Finally the evening’s centerpiece, Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, was every bit as magnificent as I’d hoped a live performance of this piece would be. The star of the piece happens at the very outset: the singer wails a wordless vocalise into the open strings of an amplified piano. Upshaw and the sound team created this effect masterfully, as her voice reverberated through the wood and around the strings, activating all sorts of eerie ghost pitches and overtones. It was truly breathtaking to hear. Crumb’s music features many eerie effects, none of which ever became gimmicky or overdone. Wisps of sound seem to emanate from all over the stage in a psychedelic melange of tone color and dark mysticism, as many of the musical events in this piece suggest echoes, disembodied voices, the supernatural, and the archaic.

The rest of the piece was equally impressive, from Kalish’s playing inside the piano and bending notes with a chisel, to the percussion trio who handled such a wide variety of timbres and styles with aplomb. Oboist Stephen Hammer’s solo lines, tinged with exotica that seems almost lifted from Aida (and is actually lifted from Mahler), were the perfect combination of klezmatic wailing and exacting precision, and the boy soprano part, sung by Benjamin Wenzelberg, never got drowned out, and impressively matched Upshaw’s abilities on the closing reprise of the piano interior vocalise.

I’m gonna miss this city when I eventually leave. I’ll never realize how good I had it.

 
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