The Island Tour Cavern…or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Funk (part 1)

“I started this little funk groove because, we can’t…um, we can’t end this whole thing without a little bit more funk since that’s kinda been the thing…so just…for those of you who want to take off, take off, but for those of you who just want to dance to the funk, y’know, uh, we’re gonna stay around and keep grooving.”

-Trey, 4/5/98, before segueing into “Cavern”

For a long time, I’ve thought there was a lot more to the above words than initially seems apparent. Close to the end of the night, and with no clear ending in sight after abandoning the regular form of “Possum,” Trey wanted to give people a heads up that they were in uncharted territory. So if you had to get home, go, but they would keep playing, not sure what would happen or how they would end the night. But what he did know was that it was really funky, and perhaps he wasn’t sure how to reel in that funky energy and finish, so they would let it keep going until it came to a natural ending.

Most Phish Heads know what happened next. A short funk jam ensued, which gradually found its way into the “Cavern” chord changes. My guess is that, like me, most people don’t recognize the segue into “Cavern” until Trey starts singing the lyrics (the crowd at the show cheers in recognition only when the lyrics start). The groove is so heavily covered in wah-wah strumming, huge slapped bass notes, a slow straight ahead drum beat, and gooey clavinet playing that it doesn’t sound like anything other than a deep, deep funk jam, certainly not the chords to any known Phish song.

Whether he intended to or not, Trey made a definitive aesthetic statement that night. This was his way of announcing that the funky sound of 1997 was no mere one-off fad, but that it was a paradigm shift in the band’s artistic expression. This is the way Phish will sound from now on. And if you don’t like it, if you think the last good Phish show ever played was 12/31/95, then fuck off, go home, spend your money elsewhere. But if you like dancing to the funk, if you like this “new” Phish, then stick around, because this is how it’s going to be. As Mr. Minor likes to call it, it’s “dino-funk dance crack.” My guess is that Trey meant the comment innocently, but the interpretive musicologist part of me wants to read it in this different way. This is a statement by the band that the evolution of their funk jamming, which capitulated with the Fall 1997 Tour, was truly an artistic seismic shift, rather than a mere tinkering with the sound. Examining how Phish got to be on the threshold of a new sound over the course of three years reveals why Trey decided that, on April 5, 1998, he would announce to his devoted fanbase that there was no going back.

Part I: Prologue

I know of some fans who “took off” after 1997, who didn’t like this new direction. They were Phish Heads of the early 90s, and this new late 90s sound was not the band they had come to love. To understand how Phish got to that moment, we begin by understanding the history of where Phish was in the summer of 1995, and how they got there.

Funky elements had creeped into Phish songs going back to their first album. The breakdown on “Contact” just before the lyric “I woke up one morning in November and I realized that I love you,” shows Mike’s slap-bass potential. Listen to this album version from Junta, and be shocked, as I was when I went back to listen, at just how down ‘n’ dirty Mike gets with his slappin’.

If Page hopped on the clav and Trey was using his wah-wah pedal, this would be a straight pimped out “Contact.” Luckily for us, they realized that potential some 16 years later, in what is probably the biggest highlight of the definitely-not-sober Hampton ’03 run.

Similarly not-quite-funkadelic moments can be heard in every version of “Cavern,” and of course, the “Boy Man God Shit” section of “You Enjoy Myself” is basically a two-chord funk jam. Yet for most of Phish’s early career, these moments sounded as white as apple pie with a Kraft single on top.

Flash forward to 1995: Phish is now experimenting with some of its most far-flung improvisational experiments. Building on the two colossal “Tweezer”s of Fall 1994 (Bangor and Bozeman, both of which ended up on A Live One, the former as the 35 minute centerpiece of disc 2, and the latter excerpted as “Montana” on disc 1), and of course the monumental 12/29/94 “David Bowie,” Phish injected this free improvisatory attitude into many second sets of their summer ’95, abandoning the jams centered around the existing chord structures, rhythms, and melodic ideas that had been, for the most part, the norm throughout most of Phish’s career. One of my favorite examples is the “Runaway Jim”->”Free” from Walnut Creek, 6/16/95, a psychedelic excursion into textures, rhythmic patterns, and melodic ideas completely foreign to “Jim.” Other monsters abound, especially in “Tweezer”: the Mud Island “Tweezer,” or the infamous “Fleezer” from the Finger Lakes, which angered many fans since it ate up so much set time (a lesson learned, since when Phish next jammed for an hour on 11/29/97, they still played another half hour of music including a beautiful “Hood”).

These jams were atypical not only in their length and deviance from expected norms; they were purely psychedelic explorations of sound, color, and texture. I’ve been trying to work towards a musicological definition of psychedelia in music, and while it’s proving really tough, one of the things that I’ve identified is a “swirl” effect. Usually, it involves sustained sound, either an organ, or effects-laden guitars, with rhythmically irregular repeating melodic phrases that grow and change in their dynamics and tone color. Think of Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.”
Perhaps even more than timbre, meter and rhythm play a crucial role in creating a psychedelic sound. Some recent conversations with a musicological colleague of mine revealed this metric displacement and uncertainty at work in versions of the Grateful Dead’s “Playing in the Band” from that most psychedelic of years, 1972. Phish utilizes this strategy as well, entering a sound world in the summer of 1995 where even though Fish’s hi-hat maintains a beat, you’re not feeling any type of regular grouping of patterns. Here’s a couple segments of the “Fleezer” that I think exemplify this metric and timbral style: the first is from the 17 minute mark and the second is around the 32 minute mark (out of 42 minutes total):

Abandoning structure and form and entering into unknown musical realms was the logical conclusion of Phish’s improvisational growth. In 1990 and 1991, Phish was mastering their material, creating mindblowingly good jams over relatively consistent jamming patterns. “Hood,” almost without exception, always sounded like a “Hood” jam, although the specific melodic pathway towards the end lyrics was always changing. 1992 saw the band pushing the edges of form and structure, getting crazy every now and then (e.g. the 3/13/92 “Big Black Furry Antelope”, or 4/16/92). In 1993 the floodgates opened. There’s the famous Murat Gin: the first ever jammed out “Bathtub Gin.” However, you can hear it even before the celebrated August shows, during their Spring tour, as the normal jams begin to dissolve into organized chaos. One of my favorite examples of this is during the “Squirming Coil” from 5/8/93, where the usual three-chord outro empties into a blues-inflected, quasi-funky groove that leads to a swirling Trey lick.

1994 was the when the band took all the raw, anarchic energy of the ’93 jams and crafted what many consider to be the finest improvisational passages of the band’s career. The legendary “Tweezer”s and “Bowie” mentioned earlier are merely the tip of the improv iceberg – almost every show from this year, and especially the June/July and November/December shows, is laden with jammed-out goodies. Logical, then, that 1995 should improvisationally extend even further than 1994 deigned to venture. Phish threw down the gauntlet with a mammoth “Reba,” which many phans consider worthy of “best-ever status,” at their first show of the year, an otherwise tame improvisational affair that saw many more new songs than hefty jams. Here’s just the jam of that version, especially memorable are minutes 2-5 of this excerpt:

With that seed planted, Phish was in the stratosphere throughout Summer 1995. But I think they went too far. Fall 1994 represented the cusp of how far you could push the music and still remain consistently happy with the musical results. 1995 was beyond that cusp. In many of those most experimental jams, the band seems to be walking down a musical pathway that is not bearing rewarding fruit for the listener. As Mike has said, “I hated the Bangor ‘Tweezer’ while I was playing it, but I love listening to it on tape.” Understand that I love summer 1995 (the “Jim”->”Free” from Walnut Creek is one of my favorite all-time jams), but to my ear, some of the jams feel forced. As in, the band is pushing too hard, going too far out there, and it seems as though it’s only for the sake of seeing just how far they can go. It’s an admirable experimental choice, and one that had to happen as the band kept pushing the envelope throughout 1993-94. It’s natural, too, to explore the outer edges of musical possibilities.

Luckily, it was also a learning experience for the band. Aided by the tight arrangements of the Who’s Quadrophenia, 1995’s Halloween album, the fall ’95 tour reigned in the vast psychedelic experimentalism of the summer with concise and intense improvisations that managed to “get to the point” without any dicking around. Phish crushed these jams, wasting no time exploring the outer edges, but getting right into the heart of fast, tightly cohesive psychedelic jamming. The jams had direction, or at least, they were given direction, often by Trey who would lead the band assertively through the improvisational waters. The jam that demonstrates this best is also possibly my single favorite Phish jam, the “Halley’s”->”NICU” from 12/14/95. Listen to how Trey takes control in all sections, initiating the fast 4 chord jam, and then once they settle into that darker territory, blasting out with the new muted string riff (Page is equally brilliant here):

Amongst all this focused (Fall ’95) and wildly free (Summer ’95) psychedelia, another stylistic trait grew in Phish’s improvisational palette, no doubt as part of the psychedelic experiment to push the level of expectation even further from the norm. It’s the funk, and as these previous examples show (going all the way back to ’93 or even earlier), it was a presence all along as one possible improvisational option. The excerpt from the Bozeman “Tweezer” that ended up on A Live One as “Montana” is downright swampy, although not overtly porno-funked. Again, an apt comparison can be made to the Dead in 1974, who also realized that, as they tried to push their psychedelic group improvisation as far as it could go in 1972 and into the jazz fusion of 1973, found some funky moments during some really far out 1974 jams. Listen below to the excerpt from “Playing” from 8/6/74 to hear a little bit of this.

Of course, this has nothing to do with making any Phish-Dead comparisons. Rather, it has more to do with the fact that both bands share a common rock/R&B (and especially for Phish, reggae) influence, and funky rhythms are a natural possibility when trying to discover new directions to push improvised moments. Let’s face it, for all those moments when Billy or Fishman are doing some absolutely dynamic, next-level stuff, it’s just as spontaneous to suddenly head into a nice, midtempo groove.

[to be continued with Part 2: December ’95. This is an essay I’ve wanted to write for a while and will publish online in parts, I’m going to try to finish it before the semester ends, as a kind of productive procrastination. We’ll see…but I will finish this essay!! Stay tuned…]

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~ by Jake on April 27, 2011.

10 Responses to “The Island Tour Cavern…or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Funk (part 1)”

  1. WELL DONE! I will look forward to the next blog! You clearly know what the hell you are talking about, simply refreshing and well thought out. Peace from AZ!

  2. Outstanding. Can not wait for part 2,

  3. By sheer coincidence, I put on the Canadaigua ’95 show the other evening, not realizing it was the Fleezer show. My thoughts are largely in line with yours, though I’m somewhat less generous – I HATED listening to most of that Tweezer, especially the first half. Knowing the things that would develop over the next several years after Summer ’95, it’s easy to hear the band reaching for a new sound and a new way to play throughout the Fleezer; unfortunately, most of it just doesn’t work at all. What struck me most is how, even from the very beginning of this version of Tweezer, there’s a clear effort being made to try to groove at a slightly slower tempo than the song usually received in 93/94, and Fishman really struggles to keep time. This would eventually settle into the percussive grooves of ’96 and the funk of ’97 and beyond, but at the time it clearly was a difficult thing for the band.

    • Also, I haven’t heard a lot of Summer ’95 yet, so the bizarre, grinding, industrial/ambient jam that emerges from Theme from the Bottom and precedes the Fleezer scared the crap out of me. I can’t help but see the connection between that sort of “jam” and the dark/ambient experiments of ’98 (see: 10/31 or 12/28 Wolfman) or the ’99 version where these otherworldly sound collages are set to Fishman’s bumping grooves (any number of 2001’s, but especially The Pyramid in Memphis). I love seeing how an idea grows from one year to another.

      • RR – the thing that it so remarkable to me is how much they learned from that Summer tour as evidenced by the fall tour. Fall Tour ’95 is, I think rather undisputedly, one of the greatest tours the band has ever had. and it’s really clear to me that Fall ’95 is a reaction to Summer ’95. I might go so far to say that summer ’95 is Phish at their most experimental when it comes to playing these psychedelic jams. they took what was most successful about fall ’94 and amplified it. sometimes it worked really well (6/16/95 Jim>Free) and sometimes it didn’t (parts of those Tweezers, esp. Mud Island and Fleezer). then again, I really don’t like the Bangor Tweezer (the one on A Live One), I much prefer the Bozeman Tweezer when it comes to fall ’94 “out there” experimentation.

        one other thing that 1995 demonstrates is something the band talked about this past fall, the idea that they really get into the mind of the album they’re going to cover for Halloween. Quadrophenia is probably a much bigger influence on the fall ’95 sound than a lot of people give it credit for (especially in light of just how RIDICULOUSLY influential Remain in Light was for 1996-97). all that fast strummed jamming that highlights the best moments of fall ’95 is very Who-esque, especially the December shows. a quick listen to the 12/2/95 Tweezer compared to any version from that summer shows how much FASTER they were playing in the fall.

        as you rightly point out, a side effect of that slowing down in ’95 would eventually become the funk. I’ll cover fall ’95, and especially december ’95, in the next part of this essay. thanks for the great comments.

    • yeah, the Fleezer is certainly not for everyone, and I’ve heard about a lot of people who were rightly PISSED at the show because the second set was just basically 2 songs. when Phish jams for more than 40 minutes, you’re going to get some bad moments. but if you have to wade through 5 minutes of crap to find 10 minutes of bliss, then I think that’s a good trade-off. my first show was 11/29/97, the 59 minute Runaway Jim. there are parts that are just dead, but parts that soar. same goes for that late night Roses from 12/31/99. that’s one of the things to love about this band – they challenge us as listeners and fans. and one of the great things about Phish Heads is that we allow the band to take those risks. they wouldn’t have attempted the Fleezer if they didn’t know that we are receptive to those experiments, even if they ultimately fail and we hate them.

      • Very true. You know, the notion of The Who being influential on Phish’s sound has never really occurred to me, either. I’ll have to revisit the Halloween set before I dive into Fall ’95 again. (Maybe I’ll also finally listen to The Who, as well).

        I look forward to the continuation of your essay!

  4. Where is part 2!!!!

  5. […] 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. […]

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